I forgot to tell anyone about my work

Dr Jen Roberts, University of Strathclyde.

I forgot to tell anyone about my work and it has come back to haunt me in the form of the REF.

I like to think that I “do” research impact. And in many ways I do. But a couple of weeks ago I realised how inconsistent my efforts can be. I found myself eating humble pie and I want to share a slice of learning with you.

This disappointing revelation was prompted by REF2021. Now REF is a complicated beast, but for those unfamiliar with REF, in a nutshell all you need to know for this blog is that your research papers get ranked on a scale of 1-star (boring, parochial, of little interest to anyone sorry) to 4-star (amazing, world-changing, oh wow, inspirational). REF 2021 is fast approaching and so universities are busily preparing for it, including internal ranking exercises and chasing impact indicators and so on. It’s a huge undertaking. In the Engineering REF, every paper that is put forward can have an accompanying Factual Statement in which you essentially evidence the importance and influence of the work in no more than one hundred words. A good Factual Statement can turn a 3-star paper into a 4-star one.

One of my PhD papers has been identified as a 4-star candidate to go forward for the REF (oh my how flattering) and so I was recently invited to prepare those hundred words. I have been on training courses about these factual statements, and was reminded of what constitutes evidence*. But I found I that really didn’t have much to say. This isn’t great if it is meant to be worthy of 4-star. In fact it made me wonder if it indicates that it is not 4-star after all. Oh dear. (I have since been solidly reassured that this is apparently not at all the case). I reflected on why I had nothing to say, and I soon realised this is largely my own fault – though not by my choosing.

The paper in question was published in a special issue resulting from a popular Geological  Society of London (GSL) conference, the Geology of Geomechanics held in November 2015. The paper has a nice neat message: overpressure in the overburden is an indication of a secure CO2 store. By studying natural CO2 reservoirs and seeps in Italy we prove the bleeding obvious: that fluids don’t flow against the pressure gradient. Overburden pressure can therefore be a useful indicator of storage security. A simple message that I thought would be welcomed by industry and regulators. If only I told them about it.

Besides the Geology of Geomechanics conference and a small internal research group seminar, I’ve not presented the work. When the paper was published I didn’t prepare a press-release for the Strathclyde press office. I didn’t tweet about it. I don’t think that I sent anything to SCCS as a news release. The University of Edinburgh (my co-authors’ institution and where I completed my PhD) made a statement on their Facebook page which got a couple of likes. But that’s it. The only people that will know about the work are my co-authors, the editors, and the GSL special publication readership. I put next to no effort into gaining tractable impact from the paper.

Why didn’t I tell The World about the paper?

So, why did I seemingly make no effort to get impact from this paper, particularly as it is quite out of habit for me? Ach, it’s a bit complicated, but I want to untangle the different reasons why researchers and particularly ECRs might not put effort into generating impact. And I think particularly – but not restricted to – impact from papers from your PhD.

One unsurprising and probably very common reason was sheer “busyness” – which really means oversight, or lack of prioritisation because let’s face it everyone is always busy. A glance over my electronic diary documents that the paper came out during a really busy time for me, both personally and with work. And the paper itself was actually published when I was away taking some long overdue annual leave and was camping completely off-grid in NW Scotland. I will have had many other things floating around in my mind around that time, but probably distinctly not things about work.

Even though I liked the research, I was also quite simply relieved to have the paper out there in the public domain, finally, ~5 years after completing my PhD. Focussing on my PhD papers amidst my postdoc(s) had been a bit of a slog. I was delivering zesty fresh projects, pivoting my focus onto policy-facing work, and had new deliverables and new papers in sight. Further, by 2017 I was in a system of short-term post-doc contracts, trying to secure funding and research posts, with no budget to attend and present at conferences, and trying to output as many papers as I could to help with this endeavour. Paper published? Great. Move on. Next one.

There seem to be several emotional reasons at play, too (scientists! Have emotions! Waah). The feeling of teamwork amongst co-authors had understandably faded in the 5 years between completing the research behind a paper and getting it published. During the PhD training you are more solitary than many, many research jobs, and I really think is important for students to know and understand this. But this feeling can seep itself into those papers and last well beyond the PhD.

There was definitely some shame in there. I was a bit ashamed that it had taken me so long, and felt bad for my co-authors and supervisors. I know now from the other side that it is deeply frustrating for a co-author to feel that another co-author is sat on the work, and not moving it forward. Particularly if you offer to take it off their hands to push the paper over the line. Incidentally, I published my final paper from my PhD earlier this year, and I must say that the fact it had taken so long to get out there made its publication taste even sweeter.

So, I suppose was kinda emotionally done with the work from my PhD by the time it was out there. And let’s not forget, it can feel so flipping narcissistic to be promoting your own work sometimes, outside of giving conference talks and seminars. What you feel able to do to get the message of your work out there can very much depend on your emotional state of mind. It may feel more comfortable and acceptable if a co-author does some of the singing and dancing. But also remember that raising the profile of your work is usually much more subtle. i.e. does not involve singing, dancing and bragging. In fact, the less of these the better.

What should I do about it now?

Picture from Jen Roberts’ Google Scholar profile.

First, I am going to assume that any high-quality research has capacity to have impact and influence. Because that really should be true. The work in my paper may not be earth shattering in its brilliance, but hey ho, my time may (not) come. Let’s simply say that the paper is good.

A paper might be good, but what’s the point if no one knows about it? For a young paper, it can take time to gain traction. But I didn’t even give this PhD paper a chance. The paper never made it on to anyone else’s radar, and it immediately fell off mine.

And that’s ok. I am human. Some things get dropped. But doing so can mean you have to take the effort to bend down and pick it up again later on. I am highly confident that this will not be the last time I do this. In fact, it is probably a matter of time until I notice something else I dropped some time ago.

Having not really told anyone about the research, this now leaves me scrabbling around trying to gather any evidence of the importance of the paper – or, rather – trying to raise the profile of the work, so that I can generate evidence in advance of REF21. I am also keen to do this for my own sense of worth around my research: the paper now has 6 citations, 5 are by me (not awful in its own right, but, surely the work is relevant to someone else in the world?). Actually, these self-citations are one way of telling others about the work, and a way of showing that it was beeping away on my radar after all.

So I am starting the conversation – a little late, but, hey, better late than never. I have spoken to industry to gauge interest in the work (which, as I state above, is of the ‘proving physics is correct’ category of work on fluid pressure gradients, only using a geological dataset and approached from the CCS angle). I am reaching out to policy people. I ran a pretty popular Twitter thread. I am sharing my experiences with you. And I suppose that by writing this blog I am also inviting anyone with any evidence of impact and influence* from my paper or any of my work to please share it with me. I would be extremely grateful, as you may have got the gist…

* Evidence of impact and influence includes, for example: how an output has gained recognition, has been used by other research groups (that you are not part of) or used internationally; how the work has impacted the state of the art, led to further developments, or has been applied.

Examples might be how the work led to….an invited talk, an award, winning funding, story in the media, being used by industry, a patent, a new collaboration with industry or academia, other groups now using this novel approach, a change in policy, praise or interest from stakeholders (government/industry) and so forth.