Beyond the PDF – communicating academic research digitally

The PDF is by no means dead. A common request from policymakers, journalists, or any research ‘user’ for that matter, is for a research brief that they can print out and circulate at a meeting or read on the train – or that can be emailed as an attachment to a network of contacts. For these purposes the PDF is still king.

But the future of research communications undoubtedly lies in maximising the potential of what US think tank The Century Foundation calls (via the always excellent wonkcomms.net) ‘digitally-native’ reports and stories – something that has become a key part of own work at Bulletin.

A lot of the most innovative digital storytelling techniques are coming courtesy of the media (with the New York Times blazing a trail) and the think tank sector, particularly in the United States. We are pushing UK universities to take note – if university research is to play a more influential role in shaping social and economic policy, and enriching our culture, then they need to make sure the way they tell their research stories is fit for the digital age.

Let’s take a tour of some of the most creative ways in which organisations are telling their stories online. The potential applications of these techniques for publicising academic research are (hopefully) obvious.

Here is a game-changing example from the aforementioned New York Times: a long-form narrative of a mountain disaster. Simply stunning.  And it grabbed readers’ imagination – how rare is it to see 1100-plus reader comments on a long form story all in unanimous praise of it? Readers traditionally have had little choice but to consume a story in linear form. This NYT piece – with the subject areas tiled across the top – allows the reader to pick and choose the aspects of the story he or she would like to read. Turning to academia, this format would work well for a multidisciplinary research area that has many facets to it, for example food security or climate change adaptation.

The Urban Institute, a US thinktank committed to delivering evidenced-based solutions to social and economic issues, has produced visually striking policy briefings that can be accessed online, or downloaded as a PDF if preferred. With its infographics, strong imagery and to-the-point policy prescriptions, this briefing that explores the economics of the underground sex industry surely represents the immediate future when it comes to communicating research to policymakers.

Take a look at this piece on data privacy post-Snowden – The Big Snoop – by Washington-based think tank the Brookings Institution. This ‘Brookings Essay’ is described as a “multi-platform, long-form product that we hope will engage our audience in open dialogue and debate.” It encourages readers to engage with the story by sharing their opinions on Twitter using hashtag #NSAview.

We mentioned US think tank The Century Foundation earlier in this post. This narrative, which looks at a housing mobility program in Baltimore, is an excellent way to present social science research, cleverly integrating qualitative research interviews into the story.

Scrolling content websites are very of the moment but are more than just a fad. They are ideally suited to telling research stories. Our current favourite is by the World Wildlife Fund, which looks at the differences between farmed and sustainable seafood.

Feel free to get in touch with me (email address up top) to discuss how we are applying these kinds of digital techniques to the communication of academic research.