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How to collaborate effectively and ensure your research gets the attention it deserves

How to collaborate effectively and ensure your research gets the attention it deserves

Meet Gail Schofield, a marine ecologist with over two decades of research experience in coastal area management and conservation of endangered species. Gail is an active researcher and has served as a Postdoctoral Academic with Swansea University College of Science (UK), Aristotle University of Thessaloniki School of Biology (Greece), and Deakin University (Australia). She is presently affiliated with the Centre for Integrative Ecology at Deakin University (Warrnambool Campus, Australia). Gail has also gained considerable experience as a scientific consultant for environmental agencies and national parks, as well as in academic publishing. She has authored a book, peer reviewed for over 40 journals, and received several awards in recognition of her work as a review editor, and has served on the editorial board of 2 journals (Frontiers in Marine Science and Journal of Biological Research – Thessaloniki).

Gail is constantly exploring newer ways to translate her research findings to conservation management practices, considering current and future wildlife needs due to global climate change. In this conversation, Gail talks about her recent work on the endangered sea turtle and the impact it has. Drawing from her research experiences, she shares her thoughts on the importance of research promotion using alternative formats and why she believes the scholarly publishing industry needs open access more than ever today.

Read on for some tips on promoting your research, collaborating with researchers across geographies, and giving your work all the attention it deserves. 

Your work on the conservation of sea turtles sounds interesting. Could you tell us more about it?

I first entered this field of research as a student gaining field/work experience as a volunteer for a non-governmental organization. There are seven species of sea turtles, each with similar but also contrasting ecologies, with respect to their distributions, feeding habits, migratory behavior, and reproduction. Most work focuses on female sea turtles and nesting beaches, because females emerge to nest; as a result, much of my work over the years has focused on filling knowledge gaps on these seven species with respect to marine area use, mating, male turtles, and numbers of individuals. Furthermore, sea turtles are a great model species for assessing the effects and potential repercussions of climate change because they are ectothermic, with the sex of the offspring being dependent on the temperature of the sand (termed temperature-dependent sex determination), leading to skewed offspring production, and knowledge about how this translates into adulthood being difficult to quantify empirically. 

What motivated you to focus on this area of research?

Over the years, I have worked with sea turtles within the framework of different NGOs, as an environmental consultant, as a scientist developing evidence-based actions for a national park, and as an academic researcher. I feel that these different experiences contribute to how I develop research questions and interpret my results, as I want my work to have impact, not just in science, but for my suggestions to have practical relevance for the protection and conservation of these charismatic and ancient animals. This has been my primary motivation – I want to make a difference.

What future implications does your work have on the conservation of a species?

I am always looking for ways for my research to directly benefit the conservation of these studied species, be it through the development of new or novel combinations of monitoring techniques to improve existing ones or through analyzing data in such a way as to introduce or enhance protection measures at a given site. In particular, I am constantly aiming to build long-term datasets to generate robust predictions in future trends (including population dynamics, foraging area use and distribution, timing of breeding, etc.) in order to make viable proposals for conservation actions and the delineation of current and future protected areas. The protection of sea turtles requires global-scale actions because these species are highly migratory (traveling around 1000 km or more between breeding and foraging habitats); consequently, breeding and foraging areas of a single population are often in different countries, requiring the development of international collaborations at a federal level. Thus, while most organizations work at a local or national level, both bottom-up and top-down involvement is required.

Because sea turtles nest on beaches, there is a constant interface and interaction with society, including the need to restrict development behind beaches, limit light pollution, control night-time beach use by humans which can disturb turtles, and regulate daytime beach use to prevent the disturbance/destruction of nests. Therefore, informing the public about the reasons why turtles use a given location (i.e., for breeding or foraging) and their associated behaviors is fundamental towards generating awareness and respect for these ancient creatures. Thus, while I am looking to author papers with a potentially high impact in scientific research in my field, I am also looking to generate the interest and involvement of the general public. So, while some of my papers may be of moderate impact from a scientific perspective, these papers are fostering the work of interested individuals who are not necessarily scientists (citizen science). For instance, a video presenting data collected in one of my recent papers on how sea turtles use fish cleaning stations using a combination of underwater observations and aerial drone technology received over 12,000 views.

You recently published a paper documenting your findings about the mating dynamics of sea turtles, along with a few other authors from different parts of the globe. How did you manage the collaboration?

When collaborating with people from different institutions, it is essential that all parties are aware of the planned focus of the paper, with regular communication through emails and/or video conferencing. Collaborators could be people with whom you worked well together at a previous institution, people you have met at conferences and wish to combine work with, or people you have not met in person but would like to work with because they have a particular skill set or database that would set a planned paper apart. In general, one researcher/author organizes a group of collaborators; when I organize a paper, I actually compile or outline the whole research project and paper, describing the contribution required from each author for different sections of this paper. Doing this helps ensure that all co-authors remain focused on the main objective of the paper and that they are all are able to comment on the various components, thus strengthening the paper.

Ultimately, collaborating with researchers with different skills is fundamental towards producing papers of broad interest across a range of scientific fields. It is essential to clarify from the start what is expected from each collaborator, the deadlines for contributions, and for all collaborators to be aware of the key aim. I always make sure collaborating authors are kept aware of all stages of the journal process, from submission to review and responses to reviewers to the final proofs. With this approach, even if you do not have the opportunity to meet a collaborator in person, you learn their ways of working and build experience on how to work with them on future publications.

Could you identify the top 3-5 things a researcher needs to ensure when collaborating with other academics on a project, right from conducting research to publishing it?

  1. Usually 1-2 persons develop the initial concept of the manuscript and based on this, they involve appropriate collaborators specifying the contributions of each. Doing this will help you play on the strengths of each collaborator. Ensure that you are clear about the concept, extent, and type of contribution required from your coauthors, the timeframe that you expect them to follow, and their position in the author listing on the initial communication. Remember that clarifying the order of authors at the outset will ensure there is no ambiguity. Note, issues with author positions can be overcome by providing author contributions sections (separately or within acknowledgements).
     
  2. Keep coauthors informed and give them the opportunity to view and comment on the manuscript at all stages of the preparation process from the manuscript drafts to the manuscript submission: this includes any changes to content, a decision to change the target journal, reviewer responses and proofs. Coauthors want to be informed and aware of the progress of paper; keep in mind that their names are linked to the paper and they must approve all changes at all stages.
     
  3. Consider all suggestions made by your coauthors carefully, and respond appropriately, I treat all suggestions from coauthors as I would respond to a comment from a reviewer and take time to formulate clear and informed responses (as all coauthors are reviewers!).
     
  4. When working with multiple coauthors, many ideas are generated; an effective paper generally presents 2-3 key findings; thus, it is important to keep the key objectives in focus all the time and decide whether any ideas you have along the way fit into these objectives, as discussion points, or as potential future studies.

Let’s talk a bit more about your work. Did you and your co-authors do anything to promote your research?

Today, it is important to promote research in every way possible. In general, it is up to the authors to promote their work, with many journals specifying the use of multimedia platforms, including texts, photographs, and videos (promoted on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and various blogging platforms). Many research institutions have their own media relations teams, which will send out press releases (for research that is considered to be of national or international importance) to society in general. These press releases are picked up by mass media. Some journals have their own newsletters or blogs on which they promote certain publications that they consider would be of broad interest. Finally, some major journals have their own media relations teams that place embargos on papers considered of potentially high impact to society, leading to the release of papers coinciding with major international media coverage, including television and radio interviews as well as articles (many generated through interviews with the authors) in a wide range of outlets. In parallel, I promote my work at national and international conferences. Therefore, it is important to consider in advance what the key message of your paper is and what the broader relevance of your paper is to other researchers, and to ensure these two key items are clarified in the title and abstract of your paper.

This really depends on the paper and its level of impact to science and society. For instance, my recent paper on the use of fish cleaning stations by sea turtles is of scientific interest (published in Marine Ecology Progress Series), but it has had a huge impact based on the fact that it has been viewed over 12,000 times on YouTube. I also presented this work at an international conference, the Thirty-seventh International Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation. Las Vegas, USA in April 2017.

Several other papers I have published this year that are of global scientific interest (published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences and Functional Ecology) have been promoted on platforms like the journal newsletter and blog sites, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as through networking with key researchers relevant to these fields. Finally, the paper published in Science Advances had an embargo on releasing the work prior to the formal date of publication by the journal, with huge international media attention being generated through press releases by the journal and university, resulting in television and radio interviews, as well as over 70 articles globally. The Altmetric score (475 on October 26, 2017) of this paper reflects this broad media coverage, with it being in the top 5% of all research outputs scored by this system (which, in fact, still only covered only a portion of the media coverage that we documented ourselves!). You can read some of the media coverage for this article here.

Gail Schofield presenting her research at an academic conference

[Above: Gail presenting her research in the form of a conference poster at the Twenty Sixth Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation. International Sea Turtle Society, Crete, Greece, in 2006]

You also created a plain-language summary of your paper? How did you go about doing this? Or did you seek professional help for it?

Plain-language summaries are encouraged by many of the high impact journals. I completed a plain language summary for the two papers in Science Advances and Functional Ecology, which was a prerequisite of these journals. I do not seek professional help when compiling such summaries; however, once prepared, I do ask random friends, preferably with no scientific background, to read what I have prepared and give me feedback.

Why is communication in plain-language important? Would you like to share any quick tips on writing in plain-language with fellow researchers?

Plain-language summaries are important as they allow the general public to read, understand and take an interest in your work. When compiling such summaries, you must envisage a person who is interested but not informed of your study or field of research, presenting your findings in a way that provides the reader with the broad background of your study subject, and explaining why it is of interest to them. From when I was an undergraduate, I was trained to write essays/theses that any layman could pick up and read and get the gist of it, i.e., avoiding all jargon terms or clarifying necessary terms carefully. This skill is particularly important when writing funding applications, as assessors often have no background in your field of research. Where possible, I always request friends/colleagues to read drafts of papers, funding proposals, and plain-language summaries to ensure that the message is clear.

What, according to you, are the immediate and long-term benefits of research promotion? Also, how did you and your authors benefit from talking about your research on platforms other than an academic journal?

Promoting research has many long-term benefits both to individual researchers and the institutions with whom they are affiliated. At the individual researcher’s level, it helps with promotions, job applications, and funding applications, as well as solidifying existing collaborations and building new collaborations with other researchers in the immediate and wider field; thus, facilitating the continued production of high-impact papers. For the institution, the promotion of research contributes towards quantifying its impact on society and science beyond the immediate publication, which, ultimately, attracts funding and students. Often different countries across the world have their own evaluation system that is used for research output across universities within that country. Typically, these evaluation systems focus on quantifying the quality of research contribution within that country (for example, Research Excellence Framework in the UK and Excellence in Research for Australia, both of which I have contributed to). Within these systems, papers are judged on whether they are world leading, internationally excellent, recognized internationally, and recognized nationally, in parallel with other criteria, such as proven conservation or societal benefits. Thus, promoting research provides a means of gaining national and international awareness of your work beyond the academic journal, thereby demonstrating its importance to the wider community.

At the institutional level, promoting your work also advertises the work being conducted by the institution, drawing the attention of potential stakeholders up to the governmental level, as well as attracting students. Besides, the promotion of key components of research helps remind the general public about a given species and its plight, reinforcing and building awareness; thus, benefitting conservation effort on the ground.

Do you have any tips for researchers about promoting their research?

When planning a manuscript, an author should consider what the data show, the aims and scope of the target journal—consequently the nature of the target audience—and the planned direction of work beyond this point (i.e., the focus of your subsequent papers, a clear idea of whose attention you wish to attract for future collaborations). A strong manuscript can be used as a tool to promote your research and draw in collaborators, certain types of forthcoming funding opportunities, or even job opportunities. Thus, even within a paper, each cited work should be selected with consideration of the work being cited and how you want the authors of those works to respond.

When building the framework for the study, consider the visual components of your results, and whether you have good graphics, photographs, or videos that could be used to draw the attention of the journal, media, other scientists, or the general public. For instance, video abstracts are strongly encouraged by some journals, which can easily be placed on various media platforms.

Since we’re having this discussion around Open Access Week 2017, I’d like your views about making research and data freely accessible. How could researchers use open access to maximize the impact of their work? Could they tie it in with their research promotion activities?

I can speak of open access at a broad level in the context of my area of research, having recently published a paper on the importance of this topic. Open access is essential for research in our current climate. Because so many papers are now being produced, many journals no longer accept studies focusing on a single species or single site unless the work has proven utility at a much wider scale. Therefore, it is essential to form collaborations to construct papers investigating key research questions pertinent across multiple species and/or locations, along with assimilating available data from other sources. Providing other researchers access to your data is fundamental to move research in all disciplines forward. Furthermore, open access allows you to do that—it provides a way of collating existing research in a uniform way, and allowing experts from different fields to use their skills to assess various questions using different approaches.

Thanks, Gail, for this great conversation, and for the valuable tips on research collaboration, communication, and promotion. This interview was jointly conducted by Jayashree Rajagopalan (Senior Writer and Editor, Editage Insights) and Neha Mirchandani (Managing Editor, Research Communication Services, Editage, Cactus Communications).

Full disclosure: Gail is a freelance academic editor for Editage, Cactus Communications. There are no conflicts of interest to disclose in this interview.

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