Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Three Steps to Making Your Research Report More Usable

Policymakers, journalists, nonprofit practitioners and activists rely on nonprofit research to do their jobs. Are you giving them what they need?

Your research provides valuable insight into critical social issues and in the right hands, this information can be influential at many levels - from creating advocates to shaping policy.
To generate the biggest impact from the knowledge shared, your research report should be engaging to the various audiences it will touch, and not simply to a narrow group of analysts or academics. Today, a very wide range of readers engages with nonprofit research, not only because of a growing desire to learn and educate about causes individuals support, but also because Web 2.0 and initiatives like IssueLab have made it increasingly easy to locate, access and share research.

So here are three easy things to keep in mind when you are planning and designing your next research report.

1. Make your research usable, and re-usable.
We understand the time and effort that goes into creating a thorough research report. Still, choosing a restrictive copyright can discourage readers from sharing or using your information - even for a good cause. Certainly you want to be credited for your work and cited properly, but there are copyright options that also allow your audience to use the information in a wide variety of ways and even build upon it to create original research. An easy way to apply non-restrictive but legitimate copyrights to a document is using Creative Commons. IssueLab encourages its contributing organizations to use Creative Commons, because it "increases sharing and improves collaboration."

The Committee for Economic Development licenses most of its work with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License. This means that the work can be easily distributed, downloaded and shared, as long as others mention and refer back to the original author. Other Creative Commons licenses allow for others to remix, change and build upon your work to varying degrees - for commercial or non-commercial uses. It's up to you!

2. Leave Them Asking for More.
The research abstract can be a great way to generate further interest in the entire body of work, but really it should tell a journalist on deadline everything they need to know. Abstracts that leave out vital information - or are too long to read quickly - can actually deter readers from downloading the report to learn more. There's a fine line between cliffhanger and information overload, but those who are truly interested in reading your report will ultimately do it when they have the time. So, distill valuable information, make the abstract comprehensive and quotable, but don't just copy and paste the executive summary.

Sentencing Project does great work, and knows how to summarize. The abstract for "Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration by Race and Ethnicity" is clear, concise, and hits the mark. It conveys important statistics, gives research results and recommendations, and still makes us want to read more. Audiences finding this report through Sentencing Project's Website, through IssueLab, or any other way online will know exactly (much more than abstractly) what the research is saying.

3. Get the facts out there.
Once your report is released, go through it and extract short phrases, quotes, and statistics that can easily be shared online. Micro-blogging (sending brief text updates) has become an increasingly important skill and tool for organizations that wish to keep constituents informed. Sure, condensing a great research report in 140 characters is not easy, but stating a simple fact is. You can also create graphic summaries or pull charts that can be posted on Facebook or displayed alongside the abstract. It's a great way to generate interest in your work without boring everyone with: "A new research report on..." Lastly, always make sure you include a direct link to your report listing page or .pdf - nothing worse than not finding the source of good information!

Example: The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) frequently shares reports with fans on Facebook. Simply sharing a link to the report page on CEPR's website creates a post that appears in fans' newsfeed as well as on the CEPR Page wall. Not only is the post widely visible, but it includes report title, an eye-catching graphic, and an interesting statistic. By extracting different "micromedia" from your research, you can create content that is easily passed along and organically spread throughout social media environments.


  1. I know Luise knows but readers can check out our work on research summaries at


  2. David - thanks for adding that resource for our readers!

    I don't know of any additional published works about summaries and abstracts. In this post, I mainly refer to the overall experience we've had at IssueLab with users and research contributors.

    Will let you know if we come across any research on the topic!


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