One of the themes throughout the 2011 Annual Research Meeting was innovation, particularly with regard to the use of social media. In breakout sessions, at the Innovation Station, and during the Molly Coye's plenary talk, social media was cited as a source of data, dissemination tool and knowledge transfer strategy. Following on this theme, we interviewed Boston University's Austin Frakt, Ph.D., creator, manager, and co-author of The Incidental Economist blog, about the ways blogging has changed his approach to research and dissemination. AcademyHealth: You write regularly for “The Incidental Economist” blog. Can you tell us a little about who the Incidental Economists are? Austin Frakt: For a time, I was the sole writer there, but the success of The Incidental Economist [TIE] is a credit to the work of all our bloggers: Aaron Carroll of Indiana University, Don Taylor of Duke, and Kevin Outterson of Boston University all write regularly for TIE now. They do a tremendous job. We also have had occasional contributions from Steve Pizer of Boston University, Harold Pollack of the University of Chicago, Uwe Reinhardt of Princeton, Michael McWilliams of Harvard, and Randall Brown of Mathematica Policy Research. Other important contributions from the community of scholars appear in the comments. (I hope I have not overlooked anyone.) AcademyHealth:  How has blogging for The Incidental Economist changed your approach/thinking about knowledge translation and research dissemination? Austin Frakt: It is clear to me what has been missing in that translation of research evidence into policy relevance: it’s all in the timing. To explain, consider the two sides: (1) researchers who know the body of scholarly work but may not necessarily be closely following the policy debate and (2) journalists and policymakers who know what the issues of the day are, but not the relevant research. So, there is a disconnect. The traditional way of bridging the two worlds has been the press release. But think about when press releases occur. They are timed with the publication of a new study or paper. Well, that timing is driven by things unrelated to the policy debate: the securing of research funds, the trials of acquiring and analyzing data, the time to write the paper, the length of the review process, the journal’s production schedule, etc. Consequently, very often a great study comes out, accompanied by a well-written press release, and it is irrelevant to the issue of the day. It then receives less attention than it deserves. The timing is wrong! However, we should not then ignore that research when the issue gets hot later. That’s the right time to resurrect it, and to do so rapidly. Blogs, written by knowledgeable researchers and read by journalists and policymakers, can do that. A good quote or chart from the right paper at the right time can give that study, its authors, affiliated institutions, and funders visibility that they would otherwise not receive. Moreover, it can influence the debate and, one hopes, achieve better policy outcomes. Isn’t that the purpose of our work? AcademyHealth: What do you see as the biggest advantage of this format (blogging)? Of social media in general? Austin Frakt: In part it is about timing, again, or speed. Blogs and social media (principally Twitter) run at the speed of light. Organizations are already familiar with this and many use Twitter and email to alert interested parties of relevant or breaking news, issues, or information. Researchers and research organizations can harness that too. Journalists love it because they want relevant, credible information right now so they can do their jobs better and look and be smarter. The other chief advantage to these media is the degree of informality. They are forgiving. One need not refine a blog post or a tweet to the extent one would a journal article. I analogize them to a conversation. One can use a blog to say, “Hey, I think this research is relevant to today’s policy debate. Here’s a chart and a little bit about it.” Nothing fancy is needed. This benefits journalists and policymakers, but also other researchers. Don’t researchers talk to each other to learn more about the existing body of work? Of course! Is there a good reason that cannot be done with new media? Of course not! Lastly, blogs are accessible. How many policy-relevant reports and papers go unnoticed? Far too many. As a community, we’re not harnessing the huge investment we’ve made. Most of the great work is buried. It’s too hard for others to find. That’s a shame and a waste. AcademyHealth: What evidence is there that blogging and social media really increase the reach of our work? Austin Frakt: When Paul Krugman writes a column referencing work brought to his attention on a blog, that’s pretty good evidence. The very thing happened earlier this week, in his June 12 column.  Millions of people read Krugman. That’s just one, recent example. But there are hundreds of others. A list of prominent citations of work highlighted on The Incidental Economist is online. As long as that list is, it doesn’t include the calls from journalists and policymakers I’ve received based on blog content. One might question whether feeding the media has policy relevance. But, it’s pretty clear who is reading those media sources. Those readers have offices on Capitol Hill, in influential think tanks, and so on. If this is not increasing the reach of our work, I don’t know what is. I also get tremendous feedback from the health services research community. So, the reach is extended not just outward, but inward. It has led to a lot of opportunities to extend and improve my own work that I would not otherwise have had. That’s valuable reaching, and that’s the reward for putting in the effort to do so. AcademyHealth: How does the impact of a social media placement compare to journal publication, traditional news coverage and publication via gray lit? Austin Frakt: I’ve already written about the timing issues with journal or report publication. Relative to blogs, the traditional media are slower and less nuanced and detailed. There is only so much time in a radio or TV newscast. There are only so many column-inches in a paper. The viewer/listener/readership of those are broad, though large. So they have tremendous value and leverage, but lack speed and agility. Blogs are fast and have infinite space. They can cater to a more refined niche. As someone who followed health reform very closely, I can tell you that some of the best reporting on it was in the blogosphere. By the time the news hit the papers like The New York Times, it was old, and not as detailed. This isn’t just my opinion. Others who followed health reform even more closely said the same thing, even wrote it (see Harold Pollack and Jon Cohn). As a consequence, work in the blogosphere can drive what appears in traditional media sources. The evidence for this was provided in my answer to question 4, above. AcademyHealth: When you write for the blog, whom are you targeting? Why that audience? Austin Frakt: Usually I think of my audience as journalists because when they notice, the work I’m discussing gets the most attention. This is the amplification that a blog can achieve. In this respect, it’s not about the quantity of blog readers, but the quality. If Ezra Klein, Jon Cohn, and Paul Krugman read your blog, you’ve got leverage, provided you deliver reliable, research-based information of import. That’s the mission of The Incidental Economist. But I know a lot of researchers are reading too and I’m not afraid to put out posts that are really for them. Many of these are for me too. I use The Incidental Economist as my research notebook. I’ll give you an example. As I prepare talks and papers, I post relevant material on the blog. For instance, as I read the literature that I will need to reference in the background section of a paper I post quotes and charts. It helps me remember the paper and it also serves the community. It’s a win-win. As I do this, I drop the post links into a Word document. Then, when I need to write my literature review, I just pull up the posts. I do a similar thing with talks. An example is on the blog. At that link you’ll see the slides of the talk, but also a long list of posts that each chart of the talk comes from. I blogged my way to the talk. When it came time to give it, I really had the material clear in my mind. Writing is thinking after all. Writing for an audience forces an additional discipline. I have to know my subject a little bit better than I might otherwise. I also get great feedback so my work improves for it. The blog brings the research community to me in a way that cannot be duplicated. AcademyHealth:  What are the three most important things you’d tell any researcher considering a foray into blogging/social media? Austin Frakt: Those who are skeptical of blogging probably have not tried it. So, I dispute their evidence. However, it’s not for everyone. If you like to write and can develop a following, you’ll see the benefits. They include:

  1. Recognition in the research community and beyond for providing a resource of value. With this recognition comes opportunity. In the past year I’ve written three more papers than I would have had I not blogged, two with individuals I’d not have otherwise worked with. There are several others in process.
  2. Free, crowd-sourced research assistance. My work is improved for the feedback I get from the community of readers. I can point to passages of papers that would not have been written as well without this “service.” I can post a question and get answers. It’s amazing.
  3. The provision of extra value to one’s institution and funders. Boston University is very happy that I blog, as is the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (I’ve been funded by RWJF’s Health Care Financing and Organization program.) Making one’s institution and funders happy is a good idea. [Editor's Note: AcademyHealth is the national program office for HCFO.]
I’ve written more about these benefits for the American Society of Health Economists newsletter (click and scroll down to bottom of page 1). For more specific blogging advice, see my post on this topic. I’m also happy to take questions and help others get started. If you’re a researcher in health services or health economics and you start a new blog, let me know!