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02 July 2021

Academic papers should use emotive and personal language to achieve greater public impact

Academics at King’s Business School have developed a “how-to” guide for Early Career Researchers to increase the impact of their papers in public via media coverage and academic citations. The recommendations represent a significant shift from the often dense and emotionless writing style of research publications which can leave many academic papers lost in translation.

drops of water

Research article impact is the foundation of an academic career and defines academic papers’ contribution to science, economy, society and culture. Increasingly service researchers face the formidable challenge of writing in a manner that resonates with not just service academics but also practitioners, policy makers, and the media. However, many service research articles achieve only modest impact.

With some academics even agreeing that articles can be written in an overly complicated manner, and journal review teams commonly asking authors to improve their writing style, Chahna Gonsalves, Stephan Ludwig, Ko de Ruyter and Ashlee Humphreys examine the implications of writing choices in the Journal of Service Research (JSR) articles in relation to academic citations and media coverage across three key lexical variants including: intensity, which uses more emotion words; immediacy, which makes the writing more personal and diversity which uses a richer vocabulary of unique rather than repeated words.

As a doctoral student, I was told that “good writing” was an essential skill in effectively communicating the importance of research, success during peer review and making any subsequent impact on the academy or broader public. Yet, academic writing is seldom explicitly taught, and the characteristics of impactful articles are not clear. ECRs are often encouraged to mimic the tone and stylistic conventions of current or award-winning academic articles. However, this advice is both generic and abstract; which elements of the writing should we mimic?

Dr Chahna Gonsalves, Lecturer in Marketing (Education), King’s Business School

Journals and Editors

Do: Offer authors advice about how to promote their research via search engines, databases, and social media. Invite authors to adapt the research article for formats like teaching materials, learning resources and podcasts. Encourage authors to broaden the reach of the research by publishing chapters in handbook series, executive summaries, and informed commentaries in web-based outlets.

Don’t: Seek a “one-size-fits-all” approach to academic citations and media coverage. The researchers find that trying to appeal to different audiences may yield conflicting stylistic choices and ultimately a lower overall impact across all audiences. For example, articles forwarding ideas that draw from research within the field, and are written less intensely, are likely to gain more citations. However, relatively innovative articles that draw on ideas from outside of service research and use more immediate and less diverse language are likely to gain more media coverage. Editors and reviewers might consider that innovative articles that create buzz and have a higher premium for sharing serve core functions of science: discovery, dissemination, and discussion. Therefore, crowd-sourcing attention fosters the journal’s primary goal of sharing science, so the value of these articles is not to be overlooked.

Drivers of Media Coverage

Do: Increase the intensity of your writing, particularly in the article’s introduction. Writing about 5% of the article using words like “better,” “careful,” “surprising,” “critical” helps to drive media coverage.

Use a range of unique words in the introduction but less diversity of words in remaining sections.

Don’t: Excessively use immediacy words as this can diminish media coverage. This finding is in line with prior research that suggests affinity-seeking cues increase communication effectiveness only up to a point, beyond which immediate language negatively influences perceptions of objectivity.

Drivers of Academic Citations

Do: Use intensity words regularly. The team found that moderate to high use of such words inspires interest among academic readers

Don’t: Use unfamiliar or unique words in the abstract. Whilst diversity of language increases citations in other areas of the paper such as toward the end of their articles, service researchers in the study tended to achieve more academic citations when their abstracts and the theoretical and management implications subsections of their article used familiar, nonunique wording.

Optimising a research article's impact

Dr Chahna Gonsalves has created a guide for academics and journal editors on how to maximise public media impact.

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Chahna  Gonsalves

Lecturer in Marketing (Education)