– by Anna Ploszajski, UKRN Story Associate

Storytelling is an incredibly powerful toolbox for researchers to disseminate their work to each other and the public. But the way that researchers are framing their stories may not be serving researchers, research, or the wider academic community.

Researchers must adopt multiple roles when they communicate their research. In my view, playing the role of author, narrator and protagonist of their work makes researchers inherently unreliable narrators. The UKRN’s concern is that the ‘publish or perish’ pressures on researchers to pump out high quality and high quantity outputs means that their narratives serve to persuade, rather than inform. Researchers as authors write to persuade the gatekeepers; the editors, the peer reviewers, the PhD examiners, the conference audiences, the grant panels – that they are worthy of their place in the ivory tower.

Such persuasive storytelling encourages the narrator to tell positive stories, and the author must retrospectively weave a narrative in which they, the protagonist, are the hero. To write such clean narratives obfuscates precious data points about failures, blind alleys and messiness in the research. In the best case scenario, this results in shorter, simpler, more impressive publications. But in the worst case scenario, we lose important information about the researcher’s thought process, biases, expectations and flaws that may be crucial for us, the audience, to critically assess the conclusions that they came to. Not only that, we lose the contributions of others who are not the research ‘hero’ of the story.

To address this problem, I am incredibly excited to be starting as a Story Associate with the UKRN, in association with Story Arcs. I will harness a decade’s experience writing, presenting, broadcasting and using storytelling techniques to engage both public and academic audiences, as well as two years’ running a business teaching storytelling to researchers to help them do the same.

My aim is to explore whether and how research reporting needs to shift its emphasis from persuading to informing, in order to become more authentic, honest and transparent. Over the next year, guided by an advisory panel of experts from across research, journals and the media, I intend to interrogate current research reporting, assess the strengths and flaws of its narratives, and use creative methods to test alternative approaches towards achieving this goal.

Keep up-to-date with developments in our Story Arc project