One of the most common questions I get from academics is ‘Why should I bother with outreach?’ When you’re already flat out with research, publishing, teaching, grant applications and various other admin tasks, getting your work out in public can seem like just another burden to add to an already heavy load. But there are some very good reasons you may want to engage in outreach – remembering, of course, that your target audience isn’t necessarily the general public (they may be a specific, interested community that stretches beyond your academic peers). Here are just a few of them.
1. You can shape the conversation.
Those who get heard are those who show up. By definition, the humanities, arts and social sciences have people and society at their centre. By reaching a wider audience, you can use your expertise to influence local, national and international debates on important issues.
2. Your work can contribute to the public good.
Most academics want their work to make a difference, and the humanities, arts and social sciences have been responsible for shepherding in some of the biggest social changes of the last century or more. But policymakers often don’t have the time – or sometimes the access – to read academic journals, so you have to go to them if you want your research to make an impact.
3. Grant applications often require communications plans.
Even if you hate the thought of outreach, many grant applications these days require you to complete a communications plan, e.g. Australian Research Council grant applications ask you to “Outline plans for communicating the research results to other researchers and the broader community, including scholarly and public communication and dissemination.” If you’re already doing this as a matter of course, and you already have a public profile, this becomes infinitely easier.
4. It will drive traffic to your academic work.
It’s a sad fact that many academic papers aren’t widely read, either because people outside academia don’t have access to them, or because the length and style of writing means they’re time-consuming and difficult to read. 82 per cent of articles published in the humanities and 37 per cent in the social sciences are not cited even once. Unfortunately, the same goes for academic books. There is good news, however: academic articles and books that are featured in the mainstream media are much more widely read and cited than those that aren’t. If people’s interest is piqued by a more-accessible version of your work, they’ll potentially go looking for the detailed version later.
5. It will make you a better writer, teacher and public speaker.
Being able to get to the crux of complex ideas is a vital part of academic analysis, and explaining your research to non-experts is one of the best ways to develop this skill. Much as PhD students are taught to distil their research question through the Three-Minute Thesis competition, academics can do the same by presenting their research to mainstream audiences through media articles, public lectures, blog posts or other avenues. In addition, media training, especially for television and radio, will teach you how to answer questions about your work quickly and succinctly, without any of the stereotypical ‘academic waffle’ – for which your students and colleagues will doubtless be very grateful.