How researchers get heard
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Why You Must Publish for Non-Specialists

Let me be blunt: if you hope to increase the public impact of your expertise, but don’t want to frequently publish content for non-specialists beyond your colleagues, you should abandon that hope immediately.

Publishing frequently for these audiences is the way, the crucible for becoming a much more effective public researcher as quickly as possible. All the other trainings and techniques you hear about and undertake (media, presentation, messaging, social media best practices) are useful. Publishing frequently (and overcoming its implicit risk to reap its rewards) is foundational.

All this becomes obvious when you read “Why I Keep a Research Blog,” a recent blog post by Gregory Gundersen, a doctoral candidate in computer science at Princeton. Gundersen’s blog itself is highly technical, so not suited for general audiences. “Why I Keep a Research Blog,” however, has forceful lessons for scientists and other researchers (and their organizations) who are driven to make a wide difference with their insights. (H/T to Jim Thornton of Content Audience for turning me on to the post.)

I’ve used the word “forceful” deliberately. For Gundersen, publishing provides a forcing factor that furnishes myriad benefits:

  • It helps him understand things to the ground, imagine all his potential audiences and recognize and find ways around his blind spots and propensity for jargon;
  • It provides structure that forces him to do the work of learning how to make an argument for these audiences;
  • As he publishes, he’s developing a template for “how to feel confident” about these interventions and their chances for success;
  • The “active participation” of writing and publishing forces him to work through unfamiliar background material and learn with intention about new subjects;
  • Writing and publishing allow him to “flank” hard problems — to take on pieces of them that allow him to build up to taking on a problem directly;
  • Writing for publication is the best way to arrive at solutions — because solutions come from “so deeply understanding a problem that the solution seems obvious” rather than coming into the mind ex niliho;
  • Writing for publication allows you to more readily see white space your expertise can fill — by “reforging existing connections, walking well-worn paths” and then seeing where the open spaces lie.

Gundersen uses Richard Feynman’s famous epigram “I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something” at the top of his blog’s landing page. People still quote Feynman far too uncritically, now that we know of his misogyny and rampant sexual harassment, and there is a horrible irony in trying to apply the idea to Feynman’s behavior. But the idea behind the quote, I think, encapsulates something we should not forget, either. We need applied expertise precisely because there is too much knowing the name of things today, and not enough knowing.

In this, publishing frequently benefits you as much as the audience. Gundersen’s post is worth reading and re-reading. I’ll let him have the final word:

“Blogging is a public act. Anyone can read this. When I write a blog post, I imagine my supervisor, a respected colleague, or a future employer reading my explanation. These imagined readers force me to ask myself honestly if I understand what I am writing. How do I know when a post is done? I write until I stop having significant questions, until my imaginary audience stop raising their hands. The end result is that writing forces me to acknowledge and then work through my confusion.”