Collaborate, Create, Communicate

Over the rainbow: Seminar on “Beyond the scientific article – making your research social”

” Somewhere over the rainbow, Way up high, There’s a land that I heard of, Once in a lullaby.”

While scientific articles have been and still are the ‘rainbow’ for research and researchers, new and exciting approaches to research communication (such as social media tools) are helping us to find our way over the rainbow, reaching higher, to new ‘lands’, that are no longer foreign or fantasy but very real, and which produce tangible benefits in the form of increased collaboration and more accessible research.

The context

The Biosciences eastern and central AfricaInternational Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub, based in Nairobi, Kenya, is working with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to build capacity in the African agricultural sciences community. Towards their larger effort to enhance the impact of African science, they organized a ‘Technical/research paper writing workshop’ on the ILRI Addis Ababa campus from 15-18 November 2010. Twenty-one participants took part in this “intensive, interactive hands-on training… to develop their own manuscripts, with the goal of submitting to a journal for publication.

According to the organizers:

Communication of research findings in peer-reviewed journals is the standard by which scientists and their findings are evaluated by the scientific community. Publication in high-impact journals ensures that research findings are accessible to the scientific community for use in related studies and translates into agricultural improvement throughout the region and around the world.

But is this enough training and skills for up-and-coming young African scientists in this day and age?

Is this enough to make their work and themselves visible?

Is this enough to ensure that the research of these researchers will be available and accessible? And applicable? Will this be enough for the knowledge generated by these new scientists to reach stakeholders other than researchers? Or even to other researchers?

Is this enough to translate their valuable results into agricultural and livelihood improvement and have impact?

The answer is no, in all cases. A sentiment shared by Peter Ballantyne, Head of ILRI’s Knowledge Management and Information Services Department, and Dr. Rob Skilton, Research Scientist at the BecA Hub and one of the organizers of the training session, who discussed what more could be offered to the participants.

Peter’s vision was:

to introduce participants to social media as tools for science communication. Participants would be shown how to ‘publish’ their posters, presentations, and pictures in ways that make other parts of their research more accessible and visible. They would also be introduced to blogs and RSS feeds. Blogs as informal ways to interact and share information on a project or piece of research, and to extend the reach of another research output such as an article; and RSS feeds as a way to track research and news both from colleagues and across the Internet.

And so the session “Beyond the scientific article – making your research social” was born. And given the ICT-KM Program’s strong activity in the area of social media and my work supporting researchers/research projects/research Centres to make their data, information and knowledge more available, accessible and applicable, through our Triple A approach and the CIARD initiative, Peter asked me to get involved.

Social media – a pathway for research communication

The CIARD initiative, which works towards coherence in information for agricultural research for development, promotes that “as well as being high quality, public good research outputs should be as widely available, accessible and applicable as possible.” This means working with organizations and individuals who hold information or who create new knowledge; to help them disseminate it more efficiently and make it easier to access.

One of the main ways it does this is by exploring, learning, documenting, sharing and promoting key ‘pathways‘ by which agricultural knowledge can travel. And one of the CIARD pathways is ‘Using social media to communicate research outputs‘, which is introduced as:

While conventional methods for sharing data, information and knowledge, such as conferences, seminars, journal articles and reports, and now institutional repositories, are an important part of the communication of research and development, the way people source information has been changing. Social media has been growing in importance and steadily breaking down barriers to communication, allowing people to connect, engage and share in a more informal way. Agricultural research and development organizations can now leverage the power and popularity of social media to give their research outputs more mileage. This Pathway introduces social media and how you can use it to improve the communication of your research outputs (http://www.ciard.net/pathways/using-social-media-communicate-research-outputs).

And this is what the seminar for the training workshop was built around. See the presentation below:

View more presentations from ictkm.

Not all theory

Since the whole workshop was hands-on and practical and about building capacity that the participants could take away with them and continue using, a practical component was also included in this seminar. Jane Hawtin, Communications Officer at the BecA Hub, led the group through an activity that involved actually writing a blog post. Since there was not enough time to conduct training in the use of blog software, Jane asked the trainees to write a one-page ‘article’ in a Word document, which would then be published on one of two blogs that BecA runs:

  1. General BecA Hub blog
  2. Blog of the Africa-Australia bioscience partnership

At first, some found it hard to get started, while others typed furiously away, but in the end each person produced something. Some wrote about their experiences in the training, others wrote about their work at or with BecA. A few wrote about their research, describing what they do, even sharing some insights. And some even wrote about this session on social media and the need to better communicate their research!

And what did they think?

I was surprised that few in the group knew about these particular social media tools, let alone had used any of them – so this session was new to most of them. I first asked if there were any questions or comments but didn’t get any. Then I asked if there were any fears or concerns. A few people responded:

  • “What about institutional blocks and bans on social media tools, because they think we are using them for personal and fun matters, not for work? How can this be overcome?” My response: Make a case to their management, show case studies and evidence.
  • “What about those of us who live and work in places with poor Internet and low band-width connections?” My response: I shared with them the low bandwidth tool resources from the KS Toolkit and suggested that they see what works in their context.

After the writing exercise, I conducted a debrief to see how the participants felt about actually writing something for a blog. There was a mix of responses falling into two main categories:

1. It was challenging

  • I didn’t know what to write or how to write for different and broader audiences
  • I have so much to write about – so how do I structure it?

2. It was interesting and exciting:

  • It made me excited to think about communicating my research with others
  • I was interested to be able to share my thoughts and experiences around my work – more than I do in an article

But they all agreed it was something worthwhile to explore and try… and they will submit their efforts to Jane to be posted on the blogs.

So look out for a whole set of new ‘science bloggers’ on the scene, taking their research over the rainbow!

If you want to try using social media for your science communication here are some resources:


Powerpoint presentation: Compiled by Nadia Manning-Thomas, with slides from Antonella Pastore, Tania Jordan and other ICT-KM Program staff

Blog post thumbnail: Uploaded by getye1 on http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1059891