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Over the past decade, the proportion of Americans who are confident in higher education fell from 57 percent to 36 percent. The decline in trust partially reflects the rising costs of college and doubts over the value of a degree. But many people also feel that higher education is out of touch with their concerns and values.

Communication is part of the problem. Journals, conferences and other forms of academic communication are set up for scholars to share findings with their peers. While conversation among experts remains essential to the production of knowledge, it is poorly suited for dissemination to broader audiences.

Policy makers, business leaders and individuals lack the time or proficiency to parse long research papers. This means cutting-edge insights in fields from medicine to public policy can lie dormant in journals few people ever read. The inaccessibility of research dovetails with the perception that higher education is overly complex.

The solution isn’t a shift in the research focus of higher education, or an end to the format of peer-reviewed journal articles. Instead, it’s to embrace research communication—sharing big ideas in easy-to-understand ways—as a small but essential part of the research process.

What Is Research Communication?

Research communication is a catch-all term for sharing knowledge beyond traditional academic audiences. Posting on social media is research communication. Writing an op-ed is research communication. Setting up a meeting with a policy maker or practitioner, interviewing for a news story, and serving as a guest expert on a podcast are all forms of research communication.

This abundance of formats is exciting, but it can be overwhelming to know where to start. What audiences and media outlets should you target? How can you amplify press hits or op-eds to reach even more people? Academics are already overloaded by research, teaching and administrative responsibilities. University communication departments can help, but are often stretched thin with many other public relations duties.

Fortunately, there are lots of resources available to help you get started, from online tools provided by organizations such as COMPASS and AAAS to communication trainings by groups such as the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science to organizations like ours, Footnote, that support academics in sharing their research. But before you dive in, it’s helpful to first understand the main challenge of research communication: combining the storytelling skills of a journalist with the expertise of a scholar.

What Makes Research Communication Effective?

If research communication were as simple as summarizing what a paper says, abstracts would already do the trick. But pure synopsis lacks story. It’s like reading the plot of a movie without watching it; you may have a sense of what happened, but not why it matters, and you likely won’t remember much.

Research communication must relay expertise in ways that are engaging for nonexperts. It needs to crystallize insights while capturing attention. Focus too much on telling a story, and you risk diluting or misrepresenting careful research. Focus too much on sharing every detail, and you will reproduce the same complexity you are trying to move beyond.

The key to straddling the line between expertise and accessibility is to think like a researcher and audience member at the same time. You need to understand and care about the nitty-gritty details of a paper while understanding and caring about what counts as a captivating story in a crowded media landscape. You need to provide a fuller picture of the context around the research, zooming in on specific examples and zooming out to provide background and meaning.

Why Invest in Research Communication?

Higher education works best when it produces rigorous research that is not only intellectually interesting but also makes the world a better place, whether it’s by enriching our understanding of Shakespeare’s sonnets or producing mRNA vaccines that shield us against the worst effects of the coronavirus.

Communication bridges the gap between research and impact. When colleges and universities invest in research communication, they recognize they cannot just wait for an insight in a journal to trickle into the public’s awareness. Instead, they are making dissemination an integral part of the research process.

Amid the crisis of trust in higher education, research communication is a variable that colleges and universities can proactively control. Making research accessible and interesting is good for everyone. It’s good for researchers, whose ideas gain exposure and who can feel greater purpose and meaning from their work. It’s good for the public, who learn from scholars’ expertise and use it to make the world better. And it’s good for colleges and universities, which strengthen their reputation by affirming they are committed to the public interest and to research that matters.

Joe Morone is co-Founder and CEO and Nadav Ziv is editor and director of strategic partnerships at Footnote, a communications firm that collaborates with academics to share their research and expertise with a broader audience.