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Typewriter and Latop iStock credit Doomu

Knowledge-sharing: one more skill academics have to learn

Santiago Mejía-Dugand

I have always liked to write but it’s not an easy task: you have to translate your thoughts into words that are easy to understand for your readers, you usually have limited space to write and discuss your findings, and you have to be entertaining and interesting. Most important, you have to choose the right type of language, depending on your audience.

Learning, or re-learning, to communicate in a non-technical way is just one more language academics have to learn to speak these days!

When I started my PhD studies back in 2010, I decided that I would not only do research, teach, and try to publish my findings, but also try to get involved with the “real world” and contribute to solutions for some of the problems it faces. This is described in the academic world in a variety of ways; public engagement with research, research to action, or even policy impact. For me, I did this in three ways: one was through volunteer work, the other one through activism, and the third one through writing. I have learned a lot from all three. Activism and volunteering are amazing experiences, and I have been doing them on and off since then. Writing, I have never stopped.

As I mentioned, an important challenge that comes with writing is choosing the right language. When writing for a general audience, this is particularly important. You might think that your research findings are interesting, as after all this is what you devote a big share of your time and energy to. You might find it easy to talk about your findings with colleagues and peers. However, sharing with 'lay people' is another world. 

The most basic concepts of your discipline for you are usually completely unknown to your mother, your neighbour and often to the politician who is working on, and has the power to influence, world-changing initiatives.

Local media outlets, such as Vivir En El Poblado, have been an invaluable way to communicate my ideas, research findings, and the knowledge that I acquire through my work and through my encounters with so many interesting people. These local newspapers are a wonderful training ground. I can write in the local language, which allows me to reach people that will probably never read any of the articles I have published in scientific journals, and helps me to find the right words so I can communicate more clearly with local stakeholders (here’s my column).

There are usually space limitations, so I have had to learn to be brief, especially when there will probably be a good recipe competing in the section beside my column!  I can get in touch with  readers through the comments area or through emails they write asking for more information, sending encouraging messages or demanding clarifications. It is a good way to find new partners or research ideas too. I have been contacted by a local company that needed help to collect data and wanted to propose solutions to the city’s waste management system. A local politician contacted me to learn more about something I wrote. I have been sent a beautiful poem about local nature and traditions. I have also been sent to hell many times.

I have found in local newspapers an easy and fast way to reach people that otherwise would probably not have access to new knowledge that can improve city life. Small actions can escalate and result in great contributions. In the end, the best reward is seeing that one's message has had tangible results: just last week, the local newspaper in which I write a monthly column decided to go for more environmentally-friendly packaging. When I sent them a congratulations message, the editor replied: “You guys inspired us. Your section has taught us a lot, and we want to match that with what we print on our pages.”

Trying to learn the language of those who inhabit our cities and can make a difference seems to be paying off.