Robert Kelchen Provides Tips for Summarizing Research for a Broad Audience
Robert Kelchen Provides Tips for Summarizing Research for a Broad Audience

November 2022

AERA member Robert Kelchen is a professor of education and head of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He has been recognized by Education Week as one of the 25 most influential scholars in education.

Congratulations—your newest article just came out! After conceptualizing your study, finding time to do it in between all of your other responsibilities, and finally getting it through a peer review process that is frequently slow and painful, it’s time to move on to the next project. Right?

Well, not quite. While peer-reviewed articles represent some of the most valuable academic currency, most of us in the field of education are here because we care about making a difference in the world. And unfortunately, most of the people who can help us make a difference—policymakers, practitioners, and journalists—are not regularly reading scholarly journals. It is then on us to make our research accessible and digestible for a broad audience.

Yet it can be difficult to summarize our work in a concise manner that can be understood by people without a Ph.D. in our subfield. Based on my experience as a researcher who frequently interacts with stakeholders outside of universities, here are some tips on how to summarize research for a broad audience.

Find a venue. The first challenge that many researchers will face is where to place a summary. There are a few options to consider. The simplest may be social media, although it is far from clear whether Twitter will even exist by the time you read this piece. Academics can create a simple personal website to house their work, or they may be able to use their home institution’s website. If your institution has a communications person, become that person’s best friend. You can also reach out to policy organizations and think tanks aligned with your values to see if they will host your summary.

Make dissemination plans. Develop a list of individuals who you want to be aware of your work. Depending on your interests, this could include reporters who cover your area, relevant state legislators, or practitioner associations. Get the summary out to them via e-mail or social media and be willing to take follow-up questions. If you have previously interacted with these individuals, emphasize this connection when you reach back out. If they have never heard from you before, make sure to introduce yourself and establish your expertise.

Focus on the “so-what.” Researchers care a lot about theoretical frameworks and research methods. A broader audience cares more about two things: why the topic is important and why your findings are important. Sometimes, you will have to work a little to motivate interest in the topic. (When I write on student loan debt, that is not an issue.) Use language as simple as possible to explain your key findings and why they matter. People who want to dive into your methods can read the article. Typically, a summary should be no more than 750 words to keep your readers’ attention.

Have a graphic to share. If people share your summary on social media, the post may feature a graphic. So make that space count. It can be a text box added as an image (with alternative text) or a key figure. It doesn’t have to be amazing—it just needs to be legible and emphasizes a main takeaway of your work. Findings that challenge conventional wisdom are particularly useful to highlight.

Make sure your contact information is readily available. Make it as easy as possible for people to follow up with you. Provide your contact information at the end of the post if it is not readily available on the same site. And then if reporters reach out, get back to them as soon as possible. They are often on deadline and may not be able to wait a day or two for a response.

Finally, a note to my fellow tenured faculty members and department chairs: it’s on us to value this important work when it is done by graduate students and tenure-track faculty. Unless we clearly send that message, many people will not put in the extra effort to make their research more accessible.