9.17 Scholarly Contributors

While it is easy to understand why it is important for scholars to share their work among themselves, why would scholars want to share their information with you as a communications professional? For one thing, scholars are as eager as anyone else to have their work recognized and appreciated. Taking a call from a reporter or public relations specialist seeking the most reliable “expert” on a particular subject is an ego-boost for the scholar who is used to toiling in relative anonymity in the quiet of the academic or research center environment.

Professor Gray in her office

dr. coop – Professor Gray in her office – CC BY-NC 2.0

Another motivation for scholars to talk to you is that they might be conducting their work with the help of a grant or financial backing from a foundation or research organization that would appreciate wider distribution of the findings and a larger public audience for the organization’s work.

In fact, it is your job as a communications professional to ask scholars who is supporting their work financially. It is not unusual for scholars to have grants from large companies (pharmaceutical companies, for instance) or government agencies (the U.S. Defense Department, for instance), and the work they do may reflect the interests or priorities of the funding source.

As they have done with many other information niches, Google has created a resource for drilling down into information generated by scholars. Google Scholar describes itself in the following way:

“Google Scholar provides a simple way to broadly search for scholarly literature. From one place, you can search across many disciplines and sources: articles, theses, books, abstracts and court opinions, from academic publishers, professional societies, online repositories, universities and other web sites. Google Scholar helps you find relevant work across the world of scholarly research.”

One of the most helpful parts of Google Scholar is the “cited by” feature. If you locate an article of interest you can click on the “cited by” link. This pulls up a list of other articles that referred to the article you are looking at. This can help determine the influence this particular scholar and his/her ideas have had on other scholars and their work. In addition, it can help you locate other scholars you might want to interview.

Any group with a fairly sizable membership usually publishes a directory. The Encyclopedia of Associations is perhaps the best place to begin a search for any type of organization or association. By searching in this directory, you will find the names of the officers and key staff of professional associations. In the past, directories of scholars published by different associations or scholarly societies would have been one of the only resources for locating people who are studying certain topics.

Now, there are a variety of resources that let you tap into networks of scholars and find people with specific academic interests and expertise. Here are two rich resources for finding scholars.

ProfNet.com: This resource for experts and journalists was created by PR Newswire, a public relations dissemination service. Communicators can send out a request for experts, detailing the story they are working on, their deadline, and other aspects of the message they are working on and experts will contact them to be interviewed. This is a way that both are served; the experts have the potential for their names to appear in the news as people with valuable things to say, and the journalists are able to connect with relevant sources.

Academia.edu: Taking a page from other social networking sites, Academia.edu seeks to link the worldwide community of researchers and scholars (1.6 million are in the network currently.) Searching for a topic in Academia.edu will bring up profiles of people who have joined the network. In addition to people, a search in Academia.edu will find research papers, special research interest groups, journals and research centers.

In addition to these services an excellent technique for locating scholarly sources is to contact the public information office of your local university or community college campus to ask for a referral to a local expert in your subject area. Many times the public information office maintains an internally-generated database of scholars at that institution who have agreed to speak with communicators on a variety of topics. Some universities now post a list of subject experts publicly on their Web sites.

Some examples of these university generated lists of subject experts include these at the University of Southern California or at Washington State University,

LinkedIn is also used by scholars. You can locate specific scholars by name or conduct searches for types of people (scholars studying HIV transmission, scholars who claim expertise in nuclear engineering, etc.)

Conducting an efficient and focused interview requires considerable preparation. This is especially true for the interviews you do with scholars. The worst thing you can do in an interview with scholarly sources is ask the interviewee to “teach me the topic.” Someone who has spent a career studying a specialized and focused sliver of a complicated discipline will not appreciate being asked to summarize his or her entire field in a few convenient sound bites.

Further, it should be unnecessary for you to ask the academic expert for basic information about the field that you could easily find in books and in other publications. If anything, it will be to your great advantage as an interviewer to enter the interview prepared with some background knowledge about the subject.

In fact, scholars usually delight in being recognized for their expertise and sharing their knowledge in a discussion with a communicator who demonstrates some familiarity with the field. Many of the topic backgrounding strategies we’ve already discussed help you prepare for your interviews with scholarly sources. You will also be able to speak intelligently about the field, using the appropriate terminology and buzzwords that are important to the knowledge-creators in that area.

There are a variety of methods you can deploy to get appropriate biographical and background information about your interviewee before you show up in her office or call him on the phone. These include the routine to:

1) Contact the public information office of the scholar’s institution and ask for that person’s resume, or, as they call in the academic world, his or her curriculum vita (CV). This summary of a scholar’s career is usually a public document and you may even be able to find it online by searching the Web site for that institution or that scholar’s specific academic department. A curriculum vita typically lists scholars’ degrees, their publications, the courses they teach, the research grants they’ve received, the conference papers they’ve delivered, etc.

2) Check to see if the scholar you will be interviewing has a profile on a social networking site such as LinkedIn or Academic.edu. They may link from their profile to a personal webpage containing their CV.

3) Check to see if the scholar has a Twitter feed or participates in the “public arena” in other ways through mass media. Perhaps the person has published opinion pieces in his or her local newspaper, or has a blog where more informal types of information are shared.

Researching someone’s background helps you decide whether the potential source has the needed knowledge, expertise, reputation, background and characteristics to warrant an interview. These biographical information searches also help you develop an agenda of questions. If conflicting information turns up in the preliminary information search about the person’s background, you can use the interview to clarify and correct those problem areas.

Tips for Interviewing Scholars

  • Schedule the interview as far in advance as possible

    • Explain the topic, the context, and the probable use of the information to give the interviewee time to prepare

    • Ask permission to record the interview on audio or video

  • Use the principles of interpersonal communication

    • Be cordial, smile, make eye-contact right away

    • Start with some small-talk or make a personal observation to get interviewee at ease

    • Appear curious but not pushy or cynical

    • Use your biographical backgrounding of the interviewee to ask about something you know interests your source

  • Don’t talk too much

    • Remember, you are there to get the source to talk, not to show off your scintillating personality

    • Get comfortable with silence – resist the inclination to jump in and ask the next question as soon as your source is finished speaking

  • Ask questions that will generate the most information and keep the interviewee talking

    • Don’t ask yes/no questions

    • Don’t ask about things you should already know from your background information unless there is some discrepancy you need to clarify

    • Ask lots of “how?” and “why?” questions

    • Use summary questions throughout the interview. (“Let’s review what we’ve covered…,” “I want to be sure my notes are accurate. First,…,” or “Let me check to make sure I understand your points….”)

  • Don’t let pride get in the way of a good interview

    • Don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t understand something

    • Remember, there are no dumb questions when it is in the context of avoiding a misinterpretation or a mistake

    • Keep asking until the material is clear so you’ll be able to make it clear to your audience

    • Clarify jargon or specialized terminology. (A good question to ask in that situation may be, “How would you explain that to a layman?”)

Scholarly sources typically are not experienced interviewees. You may be the first person who has ever called or e-mailed to ask for an interview, which puts you at an advantage in one sense, but poses some special problems in another. The advantage for you is that, unlike highly “coached” institutional sources from business or politics, your scholarly source is usually not polished in evading or skirting difficult or provocative questions, meaning that you are going to get an “honest” view of their expertise and opinions.

The disadvantage is that the person may be nervous, apprehensive about how you are going to conduct the interview and use the information, and fearful of saying or doing something that will hurt his or her reputation or standing in their academic community. There are several ways to deal with this particular problem. The most effective, as we’ve already stated, is to be totally prepared for the interview by knowing as much as possible about your source and the topic before you ever make the call. A nervous interviewee will be put very much at ease when he or she realizes that you’ve done your homework in advance.

Another strategy is to use an interview technique in which you demonstrate that you understand the interviewee’s agenda. The source has probably been thinking about the interview, rehearsing what to say, feeling nervous about making the right points and being clear. How do you let your source know you understand his or her agenda? You might start this way: “I have six questions I think are important for you to answer. After we finish with those, I will ask you whether we’ve left out any important information. And I will make sure you have my phone number and e-mail address so that if something occurs to you after I leave, you can contact me.”

This saves time and prevents a “filibustering” interview, which happens when your sources become concerned after your first question that they will never be allowed to say what they think is really important. They may then react by immediately going off on a tangent from which it is nearly impossible to recover and bring them back to your point. By setting up your questions to recognize the interviewee’s perspective, the source knows that he or she will get a chance to identify important information even if you miss it in the first pass. Again, this points to how important it is for you to become knowledgeable in advance of the interview about some aspects of the source’s particular work and expertise.

Avoid the “Expert on Everything” Syndrome

A particularly vexing problem for media professionals who are searching for appropriate scholars to help with their messages these days is overuse of a small subset of possible interviewees. An enterprising journalist discovers a good scholarly source who returns phone calls on time, who speaks in clear language rather than obscure jargon, who has impeccable credentials in their subject specialization, and who knows how to provide provocative quotes and sound bites. That source gets interviewed and quoted in the journalist’s work.

Soon 10 or 20 more journalists will find that interview archived in a database or on a website and call the same person. Pretty soon, that scholar is a recognized “pundit” in his or her area, and gets more opportunities to interact with media professionals than his or her expertise or credentials may warrant. Or, regardless of how outstanding his or her credentials, some scholars are simply used so much by popular sources as to obscure audiences from the complexity and differing perspectives in the field that may emerge if media professionals were to sample from a greater variety of expert sources.

Remember, it is hard for any human being to resist the urge to respond to the promise of flattery, attention and wide recognition. Especially with scholarly sources, who are usually not celebrities and who are sometimes diffident and hard to interview, it is tempting to use the same people over and over because they make the journalist’s job easier.

This is a serious error. Most scholars work in highly specialized sub-fields of widely disparate disciplines of knowledge and expertise. An expert on the political situation in Kenya is usually not qualified to speak equally authoritatively on the political situation in Egypt just because both countries are in Africa. Do not fall for the easy, lazy way out. You need to use the techniques we’ve mentioned throughout this lesson to identify the scholars who are truly appropriate for your message, not those that have become “pundits” for one reason or another.

Beware of the “Research Center”

Another serious error is to assume that anything or anyone associated with a “research center” is producing independent scholarship. Quite the opposite. There are myriad numbers of think tanks, research centers, institutes and foundations that publish journals that appear scholarly, provide “fellows” for interviews with communicators who ask, write “briefing papers” and call news conferences to announce their “findings”, and otherwise mimic scholarly endeavors.

But their purpose is to advance a particular point of view, usually politically or socially aligned with one side of the opinion spectrum or the other, and they are perfectly willing to let you believe their work, publications and “fellows” are independently scholarly.

Don’t be fooled. These institutions have an agenda and are operating with a different set of standards and procedures than are legitimate scholarly institutions or scholars. Remember that true scholarly work is characterized by peer review of findings, independent authority to conclude what the findings and evidence support regardless of sponsorship or ideological concerns, and something called “academic freedom.”

Once again, asking how a particular research center or individual scholar’s work is funded and how their work is reviewed before publication is the best method for ferreting out these differences and nuances. If you want help determining whether a publication or journal is peer reviewed, you can also turn to an independent reviewing source such as Ulrich’s Periodical Directory, to help you determine whether a particular title is a popular, scholarly or trade publication.