Writing about research: The story’s the thing

howresearche-800x533Even those of us who spend our days trying to promote the research and scholarly work of our faculty and students sometimes forget that communicating research is about more than regurgitating data and numbers. It’s about telling the story of research in a way that captures and holds the attention of our audiences.

Research itself confirms this. A recent study by University of Washington researchers showed that research papers on climate change that incorporated narrative elements tended to be more influential than those that relied on a more traditional expository style.

In a review of 700 scientific papers, the researchers found that “The most highly cited papers tended to include elements like sensory language, a greater degree of language indicating cause-and-effect and a direct appeal to the reader for a particular follow-up action.”

“The results were especially surprising given that we often think of scientific influence as being driven by science itself, rather than the form in which it is presented,” said one of the researchers, Annie Hillier, a recent graduate from the UW’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs.

Take it from the top: the year’s big science stories

For starters, take a look at the year’s biggest science stories (there are several credible lists to choose from), and you’ll find evidence of a story carrying the narrative of discovery. Whether it’s the tale of the discovery of a feathered dinosaur tail preserved in amber, the detection of gravitational waves for the first time or studies on the longevity of cloned sheep, the thread of storytelling runs through many of 2016’s top research stories.

Even the scientific journal article deemed most popular or buzzworthy by Altmetric* — a Journal of the American Medical Association article about the future of health care reform in the U.S. — incorporates an unusual narrative technique for such a staid publication: the first-person approach. Under the subhead “Impetus for Health Reform,” the author writes:

In my first days in office, I confronted an array of immediate challenges associated with the Great Recession. I also had to deal with one of the nation’s most intractable and long-standing problems, a health care system that fell far short of its potential. In 2008, the United States devoted 16% of the economy to health care, an increase of almost one-quarter since 1998 (when 13% of the economy was spent on health care), yet much of that spending did not translate into better outcomes for patients.1– 4 The health care system also fell short on quality of care, too often failing to keep patients safe, waiting to treat patients when they were sick rather than focusing on keeping them healthy, and delivering fragmented, poorly coordinated care.5,6

Of course, if you happen to be the president of the United States, you’ll probably be granted a bit of leniency by those who review your article. Other researchers who employ the narrative style might want to stick to the third-person voice.

For those of us who are charged with communicating the work of our researchers, the lesson is clear: Research is best told as a story.

Image of gravitational waves from two black holes colliding by MPI for Gravitational Physics/Institute for Theoretical Physics, Frankfurt/Zuse Institute Berlin, from New Scientist article, “Revolution in physics as gravitational waves seen for first time,” Feb. 11, 2016.

* For PR and media relations practitioners, it’s worth thinking about how Altmetric’s top 100 research articles managed to cut through the clutter and find their way to the top. Altmetric points to “a number of key themes” that stood out. One of those was “the amount of attention going to research and studies that were published in response to the outbreak of the Zika virus. There were also several papers that explored the impacts of technology on society, an increased focus on public health (and body mass trends in particular) and a number that looked at drug-related issues.” The trend toward open access may also have helped. Altmetric notes that 30 of the articles in its top 100 list were “published under a gold Open Access license — meaning they’ll always be freely accessible,” while another 17 articles were “free to view for a limited or unspecified period of time.” The papers also made the news; those 100 articles “were featured in over 23,000 news stories from mainstream media outlets tracked by Altmetric.” And Twitter played an instrumental role in spreading the news about these papers. All of this and more would make great fodder for a separate blog post and analysis on how research is shared via mainstream and social media.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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