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International news platform seeks Leiden academics with a good story

Would you like to share your academic research with a diverse international audience? On the not-for-profit news platform The Conversation, academics and journalists team up to write research-based articles. Leiden University recently partnered with this platform, and two of our colleagues share their experiences with it. ‘My article has been read 60,000 times.’

Senior lecturer Paul Behrens starts the interview by emphasising that he does not want to make a sales pitch. ‘But I’m just really keen because I honestly think that our scientists can benefit a lot from this. The editors are incredibly helpful, you’ll learn a lot and the platform itself is just very easy to work with – which is especially nice since, as scientists, we’re used to all these horrible online submission portals for articles and grants.’

Paul Behrens (left) and Graig Klein (right).

Behrens is a fan of the international news platform The Conversation, which aims to share academic knowledge with a wide audience. Since 1 January, Leiden University has been one of the more than 90 British, Australian and European partner universities that support the platform financially. The idea in a nutshell: academics work with journalists to translate their research into readable, ‘short’ news articles of no more than 800 words. Sometimes, The Conversation also produces long reads or podcasts. The length of your academic CV is irrelevant: PhD candidates can also contribute to an article. And those who want to learn more can take writing and media training through The Conversation.

What are the benefits of publishing there?

The open access platform is widely read around the world and thus can be a springboard to the international press. ‘The number of readers is astronomically higher than for most academic portals’, remarks lecturer Graig Klein. ‘So I think the appeal is also in how fast these articles can reach people. One of my pieces has over 60,000 reads, the other over 30,000. It’s nice to see so many people reading about the research you work on every day. The platform provides you with daily tracking of how many views your article gets, whether it’s shared on X or Facebook, and if it gets picked up by other media. One of my articles actually ended up in my hometown newspaper.’

The editors of The Conversation ‘find’ scholars to write an article with in different ways. 1) The editors themselves approach scholars. Now that the university is partnering with the platform, The Conversation actively searches for experts among our academics. 2) Communications departments at the university have direct contact with editors to pitch topics and/or researchers to them. 3) Leiden scholars can submit pitches directly to The Conversation.

Would you like to collaborate with The Conversation? Then involve a communication colleague in your institute or faculty right from the start.

Behrens has an entire list of advantages. ‘Getting your research into regular newspapers can be hard, so this is a great way to potentially get picked up by other media. I also feel that it really helps to improve your writing skills, given how different this is to writing a regular journal article. I learnt a lot from the editors’ changes and suggestions. Once published, the articles tend to garner quite a lot of comments online as well, so you can practice in responding to those. And lastly, it’s very useful for teaching, since you can share these articles with your students.’ 

Short deadlines, quick publication

Publishing on The Conversation does require planning, as it happens considerably faster than at most academic journals: there can be as little as two weeks between pitch and publication. And with that comes short deadlines, just as in a real journalistic newsroom.

‘Delivering a first draft within a week might sound fast’, Klein says. ‘But especially if your research is related to a current event, they’ll want to publish as soon as possible. It’s very doable though: the editors are responsive and guide you through the process. And to me, that short timeline is part of the fun, because it shows you how relevant the research that you are doing actually is. And how important it is to get it out there quickly to try to contribute to general public understanding or maybe even inform some policy conversation.’

Tips for a pitch

Both scholars call on colleagues to submit a pitch of their own. ‘Make it nice and concise’, Klein advises. ‘And eliminate all jargon! Make sure your writing style is already geared towards a general audience. That will make working with you more attractive.’

Behrens recommends that writers ‘hit hard at the beginning’ with a clear opening paragraph. ‘The most important stuff should be up front. And just remember that you do this research for a reason: because it’s important and exciting to you. So draw on that and then convert it into a written text as if you were talking to a friend or family member – a text that they would love to read.’

Want to know more about The Conversation? Come and meet them online!

Would you also like to write about your research for The Conversation? Or do you just want to know more about how it works? On Tuesday 5 March and Thursday 11 April, the platform will give online presentations (in English) about their activities, working methods and opportunities for Leiden scholars. Each presentation will last one hour, followed by 15 minutes for questions. All scholars and communication staff working at Leiden University are welcome to attend.

More information and registration.

Unavailable on those two dates? Then follow one of The Conversation’s online modules. You can use your university email address to create a free account.

Text: Evelien Flink
Banner: The Climate Reality Project via Unsplash

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