16.2: Disseminating your findings
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- Define dissemination
- Describe how audience impacts the content and purpose of dissemination
- Identify the options for formally presenting your work to other scholars
- Explain the role of stakeholders in dissemination
Dissemination refers to “a planned process that involves consideration of target audiences and the settings in which research findings are to be received and, where appropriate, communicating and interacting with wider policy and…service audiences in ways that will facilitate research uptake in decision-making processes and practice” (Wilson, Petticrew, Calnan, & Natareth, 2010, p. 91).  In other words, dissemination of research findings involves careful planning, thought, consideration of target audiences, and communication with those audiences. Writing up results from your research and having others take notice are two entirely different propositions. In fact, the general rule of thumb is that people will not take notice unless you help and encourage them to do so.
Disseminating your findings successfully requires determining who your audience is, where your audience is, and how to reach them. When considering who your audience is, think about who is likely to take interest in your work. Your audience might include those who do not express enthusiastic interest but might nevertheless benefit from an awareness of your research. Your research participants and those who share some characteristics in common with your participants are likely to have some interest in what you’ve discovered in the course of your research. Other scholars who study similar topics are another obvious audience for your work. Perhaps there are policymakers who should take note of your work. Organizations that do work in an area related to the topic of your research are another possibility. Finally, any and all inquisitive and engaged members of the public represent a possible audience for your work.
Where your audience is should be fairly obvious. You know where your research participants are because you’ve studied them. You can find interested scholars on your campus (e.g., perhaps you could offer to present your findings at a campus event); at professional conferences; and via publications, such as professional organizations’ newsletters (an often-overlooked source for sharing findings in brief form) and scholarly journals. Policymakers include your state and federal representatives who, at least in theory, should be available to hear a constituent speak on matters of policy interest. Perhaps you’re already aware of organizations that do work in an area related to your research topic, but if not, a simple web search should help you identify possible organizational audiences for your work. Disseminating your findings to the public more generally could take any number of forms: a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, a blog, or even a post or two on your social media channels.
Finally, determining how to reach your audiences will vary according to which audience you wish to reach. Your strategy should be determined by the norms of the audience. For example, scholarly journals provide author submission instructions that clearly define requirements for anyone wishing to disseminate their work via a particular journal. The same is true for newspaper editorials; check your newspaper’s website for details about how to format and submit letters to the editor. If you wish to reach out to your political representatives, a call to their offices or a simple web search should tell you how to do so.
Whether you act on all these suggestions is ultimately your decision. But if you’ve conducted high-quality research and you have findings that are likely to be of interest to any constituents besides yourself, I would argue that it is your duty as a scholar and a social worker to share those findings. In sum, disseminating findings involves the following three steps:
- Determine who your audience
- Identify where your audience
- Discover how best to reach
Tailoring your message to your audience
Once you are able to articulate what to share, you must decide with whom to share it. While you would never alter your actual findings for different audiences, understanding who your audience is will help you frame your research in a way that is most meaningful to that audience. Certainly, the most obvious candidates with whom you’ll share your work are other social scientists. If you are conducting research for a class project, your main “audience” will probably be your professor. Perhaps you’ll also share your work with other students in the class.
What is more challenging, and possibly a little scary, is sharing your research with the wider world. Sharing with professional audiences is designed to bring your work to the attention of other social scientists and academics, but also other social workers or professionals who practice in areas related to your research. In the next few paragraphs, I will refer to my research project on Medicaid programs for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (DeCarlo, Bogenschutz, Hall-Lande, & Hewitt, 2017).  Scientists are probably the most interested in my study’s methods, particularly statistical tests or qualitative data analysis frameworks. Sharing your work with this audience will require you to talk about your methods and data in a different way than you would with other audiences.
Many outlets for sharing your research will not let you do so until your results have undergone peer review, which as you’ll remember from Chapter 2 is a formal process in which other esteemed researchers and experts ensure your work meets the standards and expectations of the professional field. Peer review is used for both conference presentations and journal publication, though not all presentations and articles are peer-reviewed. Scientists who evaluate your work will be looking to make sure that your conclusions follow logically from your data, your design minimized error and threats to validity, and your analysis of the literature is reasonable and thorough.
I’ve previously mentioned the qualitative study me and my colleagues conducted on policy for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. After we completed the data analysis, we sought publication in academic journals related to our topic, like the Journal of Disability Policy Studies and Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability. In this way, our work would be shared more widely among other scholars and academics who study our topic. Helpfully, these journals were also interdisciplinary. Why limit sharing my results to just social workers? Nurses, state administrators, client advocates, and countless others could make use of my data in their work. It is important for social workers to look outside the discipline when they share their results. Look back at your literature review and note the journal articles that commonly publish on your topic. Not only should you consider submitting your results to these journals, but you should consider subscribing to them (in print or electronically) to stay current on the literature in your topic area.
Scholars take extraordinary care not to commit plagiarism. Presenting someone else’s words or ideas as if they are your own is among the most egregious transgressions a scholar can commit. Indeed, plagiarism has ended many careers (Maffly, 2011)  and many students’ opportunities to pursue degrees (Go, 2008).  Take this very seriously. If you feel a little afraid and paranoid after reading this warning, consider it a good thing— and let it motivate you to take extra care to ensure that you are not plagiarizing the work of others.
Getting your work published in a journal is challenging and time-consuming, as journals receive many submissions but have limited room to publish. Researchers often seek to supplement their publications with formal presentations, which, while adhering to stringent standards, are more accessible and have more opportunities to share research. For researchers, presenting your research is an excellent way to get feedback on your work. Professional social workers often make presentations to their peers to prepare for more formal writing and publishing of their work. Presentations might be formal talks, either individually or as part of a panel at a professional conference; less formal roundtable discussions, another common professional conference format; or posters that are displayed in a specially designated area. We’ll look at all three presentation formats here.
When preparing an oral presentation, it is very important to get details well in advance about how long your presentation is expected to last and whether any visual aids such as video or slideshows are expected by your audience. At conferences, the typical oral presentation is usually expected to last between 15 and 20 minutes. While this may sound like a torturously lengthy amount of time, you’ll be amazed by how easily time can fly the first time you present formally. Researchers, myself included, can get so caught up explaining minute details like background literature or measurement quality that we don’t have enough time to thoroughly address the key conclusions of the study. To avoid this all-too-common occurrence, it is crucial that you repeatedly practice your presentation in advance—and time yourself.
One stumbling block in oral presentations of research work is spending too much time on the literature review. Keep in mind that with limited time, audience members will be more interested to hear about your original work than to hear you cite a long list of previous studies to introduce your own research. While in scholarly written reports of your work you must discuss the studies that have come before yours, in a presentation of your work the key is to use what precious time you have to highlight your work. Whatever you do in your oral presentation, do not read your paper verbatim. Nothing will bore an audience more quickly than that. Highlight only the key points of your study. These generally include your research question, your methodological approach, your major findings, and a few final takeaway messages.
In less formal roundtable presentations of your work, the aim is usually to help stimulate a conversation about a topic. The time you are given to present may be slightly shorter than in a formal presentation, and you’ll also be expected to participate in the conversation that follows all presenters’ talks. Roundtables can be especially useful when your research is in the earlier stages of development. Perhaps you’ve conducted a pilot study and you’d like to talk through some of your findings and get some ideas about where to take the study next. A roundtable is an excellent place to get some suggestions and also get a preview of the objections reviewers may raise with respect to your conclusions or your approach to the work. Roundtables are also suitable places to network and meet other scholars who share a common interest with you.
Finally, in a poster presentation, you visually present your work. Just as you wouldn’t read a paper verbatim in a formal presentation, avoid at all costs printing and pasting your paper onto a poster board. Instead, think about how to tell the “story” of your work in graphs, charts, tables, and other images. Bulleted points are also fine, as long as the poster isn’t so wordy that it would be difficult for someone walking by very slowly to grasp your major argument and findings. Posters, like roundtables, can be quite helpful at the early stages of a research project because they are designed to encourage the audience to engage you in conversation about your research. Don’t feel that you must share every detail of your work in a poster; the point is to share highlights and then converse with your audience to get their feedback, hear their questions, and provide additional details about your research.
For my study on policy for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, I decided to present at two social work research conferences the Society for Social Work and Research conference and the Council on Social Work Education’s Annual Program Meeting. I encourage you to consider attending these conferences, and other social work conferences, during your social work education and beyond. Not only will you learn about the cutting edge of research in social work, but you may walk away with a sense of how wide-ranging and vast the professional of social work truly is. Sharing my results with social workers is a good start, but to reach across various fields, my coauthors and I presented at the Association of University Centers on Disability conference, an interdisciplinary conference focused on research and advocacy for people with disabilities.
Presentations to stakeholders
While it is important to let academics and scientists know about the results of your research, it is important to identify stakeholders who would also benefit from knowing the results of your study. Stakeholders, as you’ll recall from Chapters 8 and 15, are individuals or groups who have an interest in the outcome of the study you conduct. Instead of the formal presentations or journal articles you may use to engage academics or fellow researchers, stakeholders will expect a presentation that is engaging, understandable, and immediately relevant to their lives and practice. Informal presentations are no less rigorous than formal presentations, but they do not follow a strict format.
For example, in my project on policy for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, I could have partnered with the National Association of Developmental Disabilities Program Directors (NASDDDS). NASDDDS provides training and coordination for the participants in our study, disability program administrators. I could make the results of my study relevant to the practice of these administrators and share them via a webinar, presentation at an annual meeting, or policy brief. Because these individuals are practitioners, their foremost concern will be how to apply the results of my study in practice. They are also immensely knowledgeable about my topic, so representing conclusions with the humility required of a social scientist is prudent.
Simultaneously, I could have also addressed people with disabilities through the National Disability Rights Network. In this research project, people with IDD are my target population—the people for whom I want my study to have an impact. Providing these individuals with access to information about the programs designed to support them will support their self-advocacy for better and more responsive programs. Individuals in a state with relatively few benefits can point to programs from other states who have more robust programs as models for policymakers. I stated earlier that scientists and academics may be the most interested in your study’s methods. That is only partially true. Advocates from your target population experience the issues you study every day. Because of that, they are immensely knowledgeable and will closely scrutinize your methods and results to make sure they accurately represent what happens in the real world.
Disseminating to the general public
While there are a seemingly infinite number of informal audiences, there is one more that is worth mentioning—the general public. I often say to my students that social work involves working in the areas of the social world that others do not want to see. Part of our job as social workers is to shine a light towards areas of social injustice and raise the consciousness of the public as a whole. Researchers commonly share their results with popular media outlets to reach a broader audience with their study’s conclusions. Unfortunately, journalism about scientific results can sometimes overstate the degree of certainty researchers have in their conclusions. If you’ve ever heard a study that says chocolate cures cancer, you know what I’m talking about. Consequently, it’s important to review the journalistic standards at the media outlet and reporter you approach by examining their previous work and clarifying the degree of control over the final product you will have.
Reports written for public consumption differ from those written for scholarly consumption. As noted elsewhere in this chapter, knowing your audience is crucial when preparing a report of your research. What are they likely to want to hear about? What portions of the research do you feel are crucial to share, regardless of the audience? What level of knowledge do they have about your topic? Answering these questions will help you determine how to shape any written reports you plan to produce. In fact, some outlets answer these questions for you, as in the case of newspaper editorials where rules of style, presentation, and length will dictate the shape of your written report.
Whoever your audience, don’t forget what it is that you are reporting: social scientific evidence. Take seriously your role as a social scientist and your place among peers in your discipline. Present your findings as clearly and as honestly as you possibly can; pay appropriate homage to the scholars who have come before you, even while you raise questions about their work; and aim to engage your readers in a discussion about your work and about avenues for further inquiry. Even if you won’t ever meet your readers face-to-face, imagine what they might ask you upon reading your report, imagine your response, and provide some of those details in your written report.
In this chapter, the venues through which I shared my work may not be particularly helpful to your project (unless you also completed a project on intellectual and developmental disabilities). You will need to identify conferences, journals, stakeholders, or media for disseminating your research results. As you proceed, consider the following questions:
- What academic and research conferences are relevant to your topic?
- What journals publish in your topic area? What journals appeared often in your literature review?
- What interdisciplinary conferences and meetings are relevant to your topic?
- What stakeholders would find your research conclusions relevant?
- Who is your target population? What media do they consume?
- What popular media would find your research relevant or interesting? Can you trust them to report your results responsibly?
- Disseminating findings takes planning and careful consideration of your audiences.
- The dissemination process includes determining the who, where, and how of reaching your audiences.
- Plagiarism is among the most egregious transgressions a scholar can commit.
- In formal presentations, include your research question, methodological approach, major findings, and a few final takeaways.
- Roundtable presentations emphasize discussion among participants.
- Poster presentations are visual representations of research findings that also encourage discussion.
- Reports for public consumption usually contain fewer details than reports for scholarly consumption.
- Keep your role and obligations as a social scientist in mind as you write research reports.
- Dissemination- “a planned process that involves consideration of target audiences and the settings in which research findings are to be received and, where appropriate, communicating and interacting with wider policy and…service audiences in ways that will facilitate research uptake in decision-making processes and practice” (Wilson, Petticrew, Calnan, & Natareth, 2010, p. 91)
- Oral presentation- verbal presentation of research findings to a conference audience
- Plagiarism- presenting someone else’s words or ideas as if they are your own
- Poster presentation- presentations that use a poster to visually represent the elements of the study
- Roundtable presentation- presentations designed to stimulate discussion on a topic
- Wilson, P. M., Petticrew, M., Calnan, M. W., & Natareth, I. (2010). Disseminating research findings: What should researchers do? A systematic scoping review of conceptual frameworks. Implementation Science, 5, 91. ↵
- DeCarlo, M., Hall-Lande, J. Bogenschutz, M., & Hewitt, A. (2017). State of the states in self-direction for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (Policy research brief 26, 1). Minneapolis, MN: Research and Training Center on Community Living at the University of Minnesota. Retrieved from: https://ici.umn.edu/index.php?products/view/952↵
- As just a single example, take note of this story: Maffly, B. (2011, August 19). “Pattern of plagiarism” costs University of Utah scholar his job. The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/cougars/52378377-78/bakhtiari-university-panel-plagiarism.html.csp?page=1↵
- As a single example (of many) of the consequences for students of committing plagiarism, see Go, A. (2008). Two students kicked off semester at sea for plagiarism. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from www.usnews.com/education/blogs/paper-trail/2008/08/14/two-students-kicked-off-semester-at-sea-for-plagiarism↵