Open Access: Reaching Your Audience

October 26, 2016

By Michael Donaldson

In honour of Open Access Week, we explore how open access removes barriers to scholarly research which in turn can increase the visibility of research results. This year’s OA Week theme is Open in Action so in this post we provide examples of using open access as a tool to help authors increase the reach of their research.

Many researchers today aim to increase the visibility of their work, however this can be challenging for researchers who are accustomed to only sharing work with other researchers in their field. If one of your goals is to increase the visibility of your research, the first step is to develop strategies to make sure that your research is visible and targeted to your intended audience.

First and foremost, it is essential that your audience trusts your research. We recently published a study in FACETS that found that academic journals are the most trusted source of scientific information among researchers, the public, resource managers, and policymakers. Thus, starting with publishing your research in a credible peer-reviewed journal is essential. However, trust is only one piece of the puzzle; once your research is published, there are several strategies (some examples outlined below) that you can employ to increase the visibility of your work and ensure you engage your target audience. 

The next step is to identify your goals in terms of reaching your audience:

  • Are you trying to reach other researchers so that your work can be cited and built upon or perhaps to foster collaboration? 
  • Do you conduct applied research with practical applications for managers or for policymakers? 
  • Are you trying to reach the public or other key stakeholders? 
Perhaps your goal is to reach all of the above and more. This was the case for a paper we published in FACETS, that explored the way that certain animal species are vastly under-studied in the conservation science literature.  As we began writing this paper, we realized that we needed to share the results as broadly as possible to draw attention towards this research bias and to posit ideas on how to rectify the bias. In this post, this paper is used as an example of steps you can take in an effort to reach a broad audience.

To accomplish our goal of reaching as broad of an audience as possible, we considered both research accessibility and also strategies for disseminating the research. In terms of accessibility, there are really two components: 

  1. Access to research: providing electronic open access with no paywalls.
  2. Accessibility of your research: making your research accessible in terms of having your audiences understand the content of your research. 


Whether or not your audience is able to access your research must be a key consideration for all authors. A lack of access not only frustrates your audience but can also mean that they turn to other sources of information instead of your work. As one example, a recent study identified that over half of the staff members in U.S. state health departments stated that access and cost limited their ability to use peer-reviewed journals to find evidence. This problem is likely far worse among the general public and other stakeholders who are far less likely to have access to peer-reviewed research compared to staff and students at universities and research institutions. The trouble then is that those who cannot access peer-reviewed research may turn to other sources which may not be peer-reviewed to access scientific information. Open access removes these barriers for all audiences. By making your paper open access, it not only has the potential to have broader readership but it also provides more freedom to share your research.

Accessibility – Get Creative!

Even with access to your peer-reviewed paper, non-specialized audiences may still have trouble understanding the technical language. To assist your audiences in better understanding your research, consider presenting your work in different formats in addition to the traditional journal article style. For example, you can create an infographic that visually summarizes your study or a single image that conveys key findings (see below) or you can create a plain language summary that briefly summarizes the key elements of the research in an accessible writing style that appeals to broad audiences. A video abstract may help authors explain their work to broad audiences as well.

An example image used in our taxonomic bias paper to explore trends in citation rates between invertebrates and vertebrates. This image was designed to summarize our key findings in a single figure which facilitates sharing via social media.

Blog posts, either through personal web sites or specialized blogs, can be a great way to share your work informally. Blog posts afford the authors the freedom to provide context for their work and even to add personal anecdotes and opinion that are often not found in the peer-reviewed literature. For example, in a blog post based on our taxonomic bias paper, we incorporated examples and images of some of the most-studied species in our analysis. As another example, in the blog post based on our science communication paper, we added a list of strategies for effectively communicating your research that really complemented our original paper but that we could not include in our original paper because it was beyond the paper’s scope.

Creativity is a key element of science communication. Photographs, art, creative writing, and any number of other artistic pursuits can all enhance your scientific research and make it more accessible to broad audiences. For example, how about a haiku?

Getting creative: a haiku that summarizes the key findings of our taxonomic bias paper. This image was shared via social media to draw attention to the paper.

Get the Word Out!

Of course, access and accessibility are important, but to reach your audience you have to promote your work and get it out there. Working with science communication specialists such as your university’s press office, your publisher, or freelancers to help you prepare a more accessible summary of your work to be distributed through popular media as a press release or general interest article is a great option to reach your audience. Make sure to include links to your plain language summary, blog posts, and so on in order to provide additional context for your research papers. If your paper is open access, it can be easily tied in to press releases and other articles without concerns that some readers would not be able to access the content.

Social media is widely used by scientists and non-scientists, providing an excellent tool to rapidly share your work with a broad audience. As an example, FACETS maintains plain language summaries on Medium. This platform is excellent for sharing the summaries to followers and can also be cross-posted through social media, resulting in great reach for the plain language summaries posted there. For example, we found that our plain language summary on Medium reached a much broader audience than we could have expected, even receiving a retweet from author and environmental activist Margaret Atwood.

A retweet received from Margaret Atwood due to our plain language summary being shared broadly through both Medium and Twitter.

Partly as a result of the promotion of our taxonomic bias article as well as the nature of the article being of general interest, we received quite a bit of uptake from both social and conventional media, including articles in local newspapers, a radio interview, and features in digital magazines. The key to this uptake centred on the article being open access: the full article was fully accessible and electronic, meaning that the article could be linked in full and then easily and quickly accessed by readers.

A headline from Smithsonian Magazine on our taxonomic bias paper.

Ultimately, our goal was to reach a broad audience with our taxonomic bias paper but of course, that’s only the beginning. The next big step for us is to propose solutions to taxonomic bias and to begin work to implement them. In this case, open access set the foundation for broader distribution of the article and associated materials, which in turn facilitated uptake from a broad audience. While there has been uptake on our results so far, only time will tell if this work has any influence on research, policy, and ultimately conservation. Providing access and accessibility and getting the research out to the world is a small but fundamental first step in creating awareness, generating discussion, and hopefully effecting change. 

Michael R. Donaldson (@EcolEvol) is the Content Development Manager at Canadian Science Publishing. His lifelong passion for nature led to a B.Sc. and M.Sc. at Carleton University and a Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia, studying the effects of climate change and fisheries on Pacific Salmon. His more recent work has investigated methods for preventing the spread of invasive Asian Carp into the Great Lakes. He has also written on the peer-review process and ideas for enhancing scientific communication. A passionate communicator of science, Michael has participated in a number of academic conferences and continues to do so in his role with Canadian Science Publishing. Michael volunteers on a number of academic society committees, many related to scholarly publishing and science communication.

Filed Under: FACETS Open Access Science Communication Michael Donaldson

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