Jamaal Abdul-Alim Shares How Researchers Can Get Published in The Conversation
Jamaal Abdul-Alim Shares How Researchers Can Get Published in The Conversation

November 2023

Jamaal S. Abdul-Alim is education editor at the U.S. edition of The Conversation, an international news website that publishes articles on timely topics written by academic experts for a general audience. A former newspaper beat reporter, he covered higher education for more than a decade, and has also written about chess, child development, crime, foster care, Hip-Hop, and Islam. He was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University. Abdul-Alim can be reached at jamaal@theconversation.com.

Q. The Conversation publishes news articles written by academics on research they have conducted. Could you give us a brief overview of what those articles look like and how they differ from academic studies?

A key difference—in relation to academic studies—is that we try to make our articles plain spoken and easy to understand. Another key difference is that we try to get to the point swiftly, rather than back into a story with history and context.

Our articles may take on different forms. It all depends on the subject matter and what kind of material the researcher can provide. If there’s rich qualitative data—that is to say, anecdotes and vignettes that involve students, parents, or teachers— then maybe the story should start with some of that rich, relatable material. But if you have mostly quantitative data, then maybe it’s best to do a short piece in which you state your findings and then explain why they’re important. We also do Q&As or panels in which three or four scholars weigh in on a particular topic.

Q. How widely published is The Conversation’s content? Who reads it?

Our reach often expands beyond what data can capture. But what the data show is that our reach is quite impressive. For instance, in our latest impact report, which you can access here, it states that more than 194,000 people subscribe to our newsletter. We’ve accumulated over one billion views since we launched back in 2014. And our articles attract more than 13.5 million readers per month, whether that be through our website or the publications that republish what we produce. For instance, as education editor, I’ve commissioned articles for The Conversation that have subsequently appeared in well-known metropolitan newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, and the Washington Post.

In terms of readership, it runs the gamut. For instance, we have some stories that are really popular with education sites that use our news articles for classroom lessons in K–12 schools. Then we have many readers who have accumulated a lot of life experience—people who have retired or are near retirement. And we have a large and diverse body of readers who fall between that school-age and retirement population. If you write for The Conversation, depending on what you write, your story could be the topic of discussion in a classroom full of middle schoolers, or it could reach readers by way of a small-town newspaper or a large metropolitan daily newspaper or maybe Yahoo! News. Also, a lot of niche and specialty sites pick up our stuff, so we also reach readers with a keen interest in a particular subject.

Q.  Who can submit to The Conversation?

The best source for this would be Chapter 5 of our global editorial guidelines. In short, you have to be at least a PhD candidate or a faculty member at a college or university. And we ask authors to only write about things that align with their expertise.

Q. What is the best way for a researcher to submit an idea or draft article? What are the general guidelines for a submitted article?

Our formal pitch system is here: https://theconversation.com/us/pitches

You can also email the subject editor directly. All of the editors and what they cover are listed here: https://theconversation.com/us/team

The best thing you can do to improve your chances of getting a story published is to have a very clear and focused pitch. If your pitch is full of jargon and seems incoherent, it’s gonna be more likely to end up in a virtual trash can.

It also doesn’t hurt to workshop your pitch with your university comms person. Or with one of us editors. We generally don’t like prewritten drafts, though. It’s better to talk a story through with us before you write it.

Q. How do you decide whether research is newsworthy?

If it touches on something that we know affects large segments of the population—like some aspect of student loan debt—that’s one way. But also if it’s just plain interesting or of practical use.

Q. After a researcher has submitted a draft, your team works closely with them to edit it for a general audience. What is the value of that process to readers? And what can researchers gain from it?

Researchers routinely thank us for two things: our rigorous fact-checking and our simplifying of what they write. One of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten is: “I wish all my editors were as thorough as you.”

The fact-checking can really be a life saver. Similarly, I’ve often heard from authors that they’re so glad we took what they wrote and put it in plain language. We’re not trying to impress people with quaint and highfalutin words. We’re also not dumbing things down. We just want plain, conversational language that people can easily understand and hopefully find pleasurable to read.

Q. What education issues are especially newsworthy right now? Which ones do you see emerging over the next six months or year?

Just about any time we write about the challenges that K–12 teachers face, those articles tend to perform really well. We’re talking close to half a million readers in some cases, and those are just the ones we know about. Teacher challenges—such as student assaults on teachers, teacher shortages, how to help struggling students—those are going to be important issues probably for the foreseeable future.

Similarly, I think there’s going to be continued or growing interest in the social and economic value of a college degree, so anything that gets at the payoff of going to college I think will do well. Also, research that gets at solutions instead of just identifying problems. I think that will become more and more important. There’s a certain indifference and fatigue that can come about from a constant barrage of reports about disparities. The question is: What can make a difference? And, as any educational researcher can tell you, finding interventions that make a difference is not an easy thing to do.

Q. What advice do you have for researchers and other science communicators to make research findings more accessible to reporters and other non-researchers?

Just sit back and ask yourself how you would explain your research in a regular conversation. When I ask a researcher to tell me about their research and they have to consult their research and start reading off bullet points from their study, it makes me think they don’t really know the topic so well. I’d much prefer a real, genuine conversation that lets me know you live and breathe this stuff, whatever it may be.

Q. What are some best practices that researchers and science communicators should consider when pitching research?

Avoid jargon. Make it plain. Get to the point swiftly. Have your evidence ready.

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?

You never know what might come out of writing an article for The Conversation. I’ve had at least one author tell me they got a book deal from something they wrote. Another was called to testify before Congress. And a whole bunch get called up for radio interviews or have their pieces republished in another publication. Those are pretty impressive outcomes. Writing for us isn’t always easy, but when you consider the possibilities, it’s well worth the effort.