In response to my post last week, “Is Research Outreach a rebranded Research Features?”, their Operations Director left a couple of comments. The quick backstory here is that I wrote a post a couple of years ago criticizing an outfit called Research Features, mainly for being less than transparent. Some recent comments on that post led me to believe that a new publication, Research Outreach, was run by the same people and possibly just a rebranded version of Research Features. When I checked out the newer publication, it was clear that at least the first part of that was true: they were run by the same people. I also noticed that Research Outreach was upfront about their business model, which is writing and publishing very professionally produced press releases for scientists, who are charged around $2000 for the service. They also don’t pretend that what they do is journalism, which was my main complaint about Research Features.
I still don’t know how I feel about this service. You could look at it as outreach, which is how they look at it. There is certainly value in having a beautifully laid out, plain language explanation of your science. There’s undoubtedly a good deal of work that goes into that (explaining science well is not easy), and that has to be paid for somehow. Research Outreach does not include advertisements, and their articles are open access (meaning they don’t charge readers). I do worry about how their articles will be used, because in addition to outreach, they are a form of self-promotion. If the public is really the intended audience (intended by the researchers, I mean), then it seems like legitimate outreach, which is a good thing. If the reason researchers are willing to pay for this service, though, is to promote their work to granting agencies, tenure & promotion committees, and the like, that seems more like lobbying, and it could contribute to widening the gulf between the scientific “haves” and “have nots”. I do have to say, though, that the way the new publication is presented makes it much less likely that a researcher could misrepresent an article about their research as journalism. Based on what I can see, I no longer think there’s anything “sketchy” about what they’re doing.
One aspect of their business model that I’m still not thrilled with is that the authors of the articles are not credited within the articles. Instead, they are listed collectively as “contributors” inside the front cover of each issue. It’s a minor point, but if I were writing for them, I’d want my name on the article.
At any rate, I do appreciate the improved transparency, and I appreciate their Operations Director taking the time to respond. Here are his comments, unedited and in their entirety (I wouldn’t normally post someone’s email and phone number, but he has already posted them publicly):
Hi Matt, I’m Alastair, and I actually work at Research Outreach as Director of Operations. So, I guess this is as good a chance as any to talk?
Research Outreach is a separate entity to Research Features, but it is indeed related. We set up Research Outreach as a non-profit Community Interest Company last year and are now up to 7 issues of our digital and print publication (and yes, they are printed. We keep a couple of spare copies in the office, as well as all the free ones we send to authors and libraries, let me know if you want a couple).
I am, along with the rest of our team, passionate about our work and breaking down some of the barriers that exist between the general public and researchers. We’ve got editors, writers, social media managers, and communication experts all working toward that end, and we’re all pretty proud of what we’ve accomplished.
We’ve had some amazing feedback on Research Outreach and our production process so far and have had the opportunity to work with some stellar researchers and organisations. Some of these are visible on our Testimonials page, which I’ll leave to you to read over rather than citing here, and there’s also the experience of a previous client of Research Features, Carl Johansson, who graciously spoke out in our defence in the comments for your Research Features blog. We didn’t know he’d posted in response to that entry until seeing it this week, but our thanks do go to him for speaking up about his experience with us.
This might also be a good time to explain our response to that blog entry. It, of course, came to our attention, and one of our team reached out via email, as we figured a direct line and genuine human conversation would be more appropriate than a discussion in the comments. We were then, perhaps unwisely, advised by an external consultant not to engage with you. Since then, we have spent time reflecting on our approach to marketing Research Features’ services, and how transparently that services package was being displayed. After going over things with a few consultants, we decided it would be neater and more transparent to launch a separate, unrelated organisation as a non-profit Community Interest Company to make it clear that we do not profit from the research community. Our site is designed to be as transparent as possible on this matter, as you’ve raised in your commentary above.
On the Research Outreach website, we are upfront about our fees, about being a non-profit, and we make it clear that what we offer isn’t aligned with journalism, pop science, or academic publishing. Our goal is to provide an outreach service for those researchers lacking the time, network or production tools to carry out their own outreach and communication activities, or who need assistance with this area. Besides the in-house team, we work with a stable of expert science writers, paid on average £17.50/hr. As a small company, we are committed to keeping these rates as high as we are able to while remaining viable as a business. The actual process of writing the article is just one step in the entire production process including the project management, editing, design, marketing and social media activities we carry out.
We are committed to barrier-free outreach. This means: no payment to read, download or share; no personal details required; and no advertising to detract from the research (although we give away an advert in each publication to a research-related charity). We also offer a free-to-publish section for those researchers with limited outreach funding but wishing to gain experience and exposure, as well as a digital-only option priced accordingly. The rest of the funding for the writing, copyediting, illustration, printing, distribution and promotion of the magazine content comes from the institutes of paying clients. As you point out, this is all clearly indicated on our website and we have created an FAQ section to try and pre-empt questions researchers may have about working with us (if you have any feedback on clarity or visibility of this info, do let us know).
The people who work for us care about connecting society more generally with research so that its value is truly appreciated. In turn, we are dedicated to our team and support them with options to work from home, flexible hours to fit around family life, and as much coffee as they can drink. Which is a lot.
We realise that our model is fairly novel within the research community, but I hope that you can appreciate our motivations are in fact closely aligned to your own: good science is in the public interest. The role of paid-for agencies, such as ourselves, may be contentious, but we believe our services are genuinely valuable to those researchers who choose to work with us. Given the requirement and support for outreach and engagement activities as part of many research grants, we feel the service we offer does have a place within the modern research community.
Hopefully, our transparency puts any concerns about our conduct or business model you may have to rest. We are always willing to listen to feedback and learn from the community we serve. We will continue to champion quality research outreach and communication as valuable to both the general public and the world-class researchers we work with.
As a Community Interest Company, we also aim to give back to the community we are part of, so we have a page on our site called ‘Outreach Leaders’. Here, we host interviews with, or articles from, researchers who are also outreach and communications experts. This is still a work in progress, but we are aiming to develop the page into a resource for any researcher seeking inspiration to develop their own outreach skills and increase the impact of their work.
In regards to your Twitter account, I will unblock you now. This was part of the advice from our external consultant when setting up the RO account, and has been in place since the account went live in April 2018.
So, is Research Outreach a rebranded Research Features? No, it is not a rebrand, but an entirely new organisation based on a completely different company structure. We have taken the good, learnt several lessons (and keep learning), and created something new and (we think) wonderful. Again, our testimonials ought to speak for themselves, and I hope you and any readers who’ve made it this far will take the word of satisfied researchers to be well informed.
We’ll continue to develop our offering based on client and community feedback and keep on improving the way we work. If you, or any of your readers, have any questions, feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, or give me a call on 01453 822574.
Also, here’s a link to an independent review system we’ve implemented for our website. You’ll soon see more reviews as we continue to build this platform over the coming months.