I recently became aware of a company called Research Outreach, a group that offers to authors services designed to help them make their work more easily available to, and understood by, the general public. The more I investigated, the more intrigued I became — and the more questions I had. I reached out to Emma Feloy, editor of the organization’s eponymous publication. She gracious agreed to participate in an email interview.

Illustration depicting online communication and instruction

Can you tell us briefly what led to the creation of Research Outreach?

Our founder, Simon Jones, has a long history of working with researchers. He realized that, while they may conduct fascinating research and be extremely passionate, many researchers struggle to communicate what they do in an engaging and compelling way. He wanted to help bridge the gap between these dedicated researchers and a broad audience who were interested in research but didn’t have the background or resources to access content in peer-reviewed journals.

For Research Outreach, our aim was to create authentic content which offers this broad audience the chance to engage with research they might ordinarily find difficult to understand and access. Our core principal is barrier-free access – that means no pay wall or subscription, no distracting advertising or requirement to subscribe using personal details, and language and imagery which seeks to make the complex easy to understand without simplifying it beyond recognition. We also invest a lot of time into our social media channels – it’s the perfect tool to reach a broad section of society with access to billions of users.

As a company, we have expanded over the last four years to the point where we now have 39 employees and work with a core stable of over 100 freelance specialists. Our colleagues are editors, writers, project managers, social media experts, designers, and animators. Across the team there is a huge range of skills but we’re bound together by a passion for science and communication. We’ve recently expanded the services we offer researchers to include podcasts and video and we are constantly aiming to improve what we do and to reach more people with the research we communicate.

Who is the target market for your services?

Essentially, anyone who is actively managing a research project, or who wishes to disseminate information about a body of research which may be of interest to others outside their own community. Often, we work with researchers who are already aware of the value of public outreach and just need a little help in translating their work for a lay audience. Sometimes, we work with researchers who are new to the idea and have never contemplated how they might explain their work to a lay audience. We have worked with research teams around the world from academia, industry, and the non-profit sectors. Some of the researchers we work with are right at the start of their careers, others are established research professionals heading up busy labs and we’ve also worked with emeritus professors who, although long since retired, still continue to contribute to their field.

What services do you most commonly provide for the authors you work with?

We provide paid-for communications services, generally in the form of a four-page article within our publication Research Outreach. The service we provide has two key components. Firstly, we take a researcher’s work, digest it and translate that work into an easy-to-understand article with engaging imagery. I’m responsible for overseeing this area of our work.

The second phase comes once the article is live on our site. Our social media team, headed up by Alastair Cook, use social media to promote this work to a huge global audience. Our aim is for that researcher’s work to be seen and understood by as many people as possible. Sometimes, the researcher would prefer a more targeted approach. For example, their work may relate to women’s health and so they feel a female audience would be more interested. In this instance we can tailor the promotional campaigns to match their needs.

We are also aware that not all researchers have the necessary budget to work with us, so we offer a lower-priced digital-only article which doesn’t feature in the publication. And we have created a section on our website called Community Content. Here, the researcher writes the article themselves and it is hosted on our website for free after being proofread by an editor. There is no charge to take part. We developed this option for the many researchers, for example those in low-income countries or PhD students, who do not have the budget to work with us but who still value the idea of an article written for a general audience. It’s also a great option if they want to practice their own writing skills but don’t have the time to set up and maintain a blog.

As I mentioned before, we’ve recently added podcasts and video abstracts to our suite of services as we’re sure that the growing popularity of both these media will help the research teams we work with to access a wider audience and generate greater impact.

Each article appears to be a synthesis of a researcher’s (or research team’s) work as represented over the course of several published articles, rather than an adapted version of a single article – is that correct?

Yes and no (there’s never a simple answer!) – most of the time, we will be shaping a story based on a series of published papers. This is perfect to give an overview of a researcher’s work. Sometimes, a researcher will want to highlight a particular paper – they may have just published some particularly interesting results or they may have one study which has a more general appeal for our intended audience. In these cases, though, we still draw on additional resources to understand the background to that article. The process of creating the article is highly collaborative with an editor working closely with each individual researcher to understand their core message and their outreach needs.

In instances where you are publishing what amounts to a derivative work of a single article previously published elsewhere under copyright, how do you manage the permissions aspect?

That’s a great question! And I think perhaps highlights that I haven’t explained what we do clearly enough in my previous answers. We are not just paraphrasing a single previously published paper. We are writing a new piece of content from scratch which draws on several sources, including background material provided by the researcher and our writers’ own knowledge and research. We provide background and context and substantial explanatory content for a general audience as well as an overview of the research. Our articles are never intended to replace an existing paper (for obvious reasons) but instead aim to complement a researcher’s work by situating it in context so that a general audience can understand. Occasionally we will use imagery from the original article. In these instances, we credit the original publishers according to their guidelines or request permission from them, depending on their individual policies.

All of the articles I looked at are published under CC BY licenses, and this is the license that you urge your authors to adopt. Do authors have the option of selecting a different license if they wish, or of not applying a CC license at all?

We’re really proud to publish under the CC BY license. This allows the authors we work with to use and share the content we create in any way they like and also encourages others to do the same. This is essential to our ethos of completely barrier-free access to quality research information. The researchers we serve will ultimately own the work we produce together – this is an integral part of the service we provide. It means they can share the work at conferences, adapt it for posters or handouts, use the work across their own social channels and host the article on their own websites. There are occasions where a research team might request CC BY-NC for example, and in such circumstances we will adapt the licensing of that particular article.

Do you ever reject a submission? If so, how do you decide which ones to accept and which to reject?

Yes, we certainly do reject requests to feature work. Each week we might receive three or four requests to publish. Typically, we ensure that everyone featured is based within a bona fide organization or university. Secondly, we like to ensure that the work being featured is either part of a recognized government-funded initiative or has been through some form of peer review. We can usually gain a feeling for genuine, authentic research.

Sometimes the context dictates action as well. At the moment, there is a huge amount of research being done around the coronavirus crisis. As a team, we have decided that we will only publish coronavirus/covid-19-related content that has already been through the peer review process and been published. We feel this is a responsible decision but it has meant we have had to turn away researchers who are keen to publish their early findings.

Generally, we of course aim to accommodate the researchers we work with. Unlike a journalistic enterprise, we aren’t here to comment on the work of these researchers. Instead, we offer a communications service helping them to distill their work and then spread that content.

Your home page prominently displays the logos of several prestigious universities – does Research Outreach have a formal relationship with these institutions?

No. We are proud to have worked with researchers from each of those institutions, but (while we’d love to collaborate more closely with them) we do not have a formal partnership agreement. We always ask our featured researchers or research teams to submit images and logos to go alongside the article and to be featured on our website, which is why you can see that list of logos. We are a registered vendor with over 700 academic institutes globally.

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is Associate Dean for Collections and Scholarly Communication in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah. He speaks and writes regularly on issues related to libraries, scholarly communication, and higher education, and has served as president of NASIG and of the Society for Scholarly Publishing. He serves as an unpaid advisor on the library boards of numerous publishers and organizations including biorXiv, Elsevier, JSTOR, and Oxford University Press.

Discussion

8 Thoughts on "Helping Researchers Communicate Their Findings to the World: An Interview with Emma Feloy of Research Outreach"

Color me cynical. I’m not knocking any of the researchers, who are obviously committed and doing important work. And gaining public attention and advocacy for one’s area of research can surely help drive funding. Heck, I got lost in reading several articles in two issues.

Bottom line: this is a PR firm producing press kits. I’m not sure how it fits into something called the Scholarly Kitchen.

Hi, Paula —

I’m curious: on whose behalf do you see Research Outreach doing PR by producing press kits?

I wasn’t clear: I’m drawing an analogy. This publication seems to me more like a medical communications company than anything else. I’m biased. I majored in history in college and have worked in STEM publishing for a long time, so two words: primary sources.

So I guess the answer to your implied question (“I’m not sure how this fits into something called the Scholarly Kitchen”) would be: this is a service that helps scholars and scientists communicate their work to a larger community of readers. To me, that seems pretty relevant to the Scholarly Kitchen’s professed goal of helping SSP “advance scholarly publishing and communication.”

I agree with Rick, but want to add that this service is content marketing, pure and simple. Nothing wrong with that, but let’s call it by its name.

Hi Paula,

It’s great to hear you enjoyed reading some of the articles on our website. We do put a lot of work into each one and it’s lovely to have some feedback.

We’re certainly not a PR firm but we do provide communications services. I absolutely understand and share your respect for primary sources but unfortunately not everyone has the background, language skills or indeed budget, to access peer-reviewed papers first hand. For each article, we cite the primary sources of information (and provide links to them on the individual article web page) for anyone who is interested in delving deeper.

Our aim is for as many people as possibly to understand and engage with research. And I think this is why Rick was interested to find out more about what we do.

While this seems like a worthy idea, I am curious about who actually reads this, and what the outcomes are. The website talks about large numbers of “Total weekly article engagement” and “Average individual article impressions” and the testimonials talk about what a positive process it was the work with them. But does anyone have any hard evidence of impact? I can only find two citations of the 285 articles indexed in Dimensions, and one of them is a self-cite. None have an Altmetric score.

Hi David,

I’m glad that you appreciate the concept behind our work. Our articles don’t have Altmetrics scores because they are not peer-reviewed papers and we are not a journal. And you are unlikely to find citations because our aim is for a general audience to read the articles rather than for them to remain within the scholarly community, although we provide a tool for high school students and above that generates a Harvard reference for them, should they wish to use any of our articles in their essays. We’re a very different proposition to a peer-reviewed journal and so we measure our impact in a very different way.

For each of the articles we create, we run a campaign on social media and then we share the results of that with the individual researcher. There’s an example available on our website: https://researchoutreach.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/RO_101_Impact_Report.pdf. This campaign was run with the intention of reaching as many people as possible but sometimes we tailor these if the researcher wants a more targeted audience to learn about their work.

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