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More communication options and tools: semi academic journals

Continuing with our communication options series, we have now compiled a list of semi academic journals from several known think tanks around the world. Semi academic journals are a great way of providing publishing space for think tank staff and notable academics and governmental officials, presenting new research and projects and promoting the organisation’s opinions on politics and policy.

 Many think tanks publish print semi academic journals, which are either sent out to specific individuals and organizations or which offer a subscription to the general public. For example, RAND´s print magazine the RAND Review is published three times a year and summarizes research undertaken by the organisation and is sent to over 10,000 leaders and policy makers such as members of the U.S. Congress, members of the military, foreign government officials, researchers, etc. They are also sent to several bookstores and public events around the United States. Additionally, they offer an online subscription upon request.

 The Wilson Quarterly, from the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, is another such publication, but slightly less academic, filled with articles on current national and international news, op – eds and book and article reviews. As of 2012, it is only available in digital format.

The Cato Institute also publishes the Cato Journal, which touches upon interdisciplinary topics of public policy and strives to have notable individuals on their contributor’s list.

These types of publications always contain articles that are of particular interest to their target audience. For example, FOCUS Magazine, from the Joint Centre for Political and Economic Studies, features pieces on politics and economic and social concerns affecting the African – American population, as well as the rest of the country. Resources for the Future, a think tank on natural resource and environmental policymaking, publishes Resources Magazine, which the organisation freely distributes every three months to individuals and institutions upon request.

Several think tanks in developing countries also regularly publish semi academic journals. Universidad del Pacifico’s Centro de Investigacion in Peru has a journal called Apuntes, printed every semester since 1973. Its purpose is to distribue and promote social science research beyond its own institution on economical, political and social issues that affect Peru and Latin America. Individuals who are interested may send their articles to Apuntes, where they will be externally reviewed by two experts and then approved by the Editorial Committee.

India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses has three journals: Strategic Analysis, Journal of Defence Studies and CBW Magazine. Strategic Analysis has been in circulation since 1977, and is published bimonthly. It is also an open forum for those scholars and analysts interested in national, regional and international security issues that have policy relevance for India. Articles are peer reviewed before included in the journal. The Journal of Defence Studies was created in 2008 to complement Strategic Analysis, and encourages research on defense by providing a platform for sharing new research findings and academic opinions. Scholars and analysts may send either analytical articles or book reviews. CBW Magazine, as its title tells us, is more in magazine format: it features a cover story in every issue, and its articles do not have to be peer reviewed. It focuses solely on chemical and biological weapons.

Channels of distribution

While most still offer print versions of their publications, more and more organisations and institutions, including think tanks, are now offering digital formats of their journals. These can be downloaded online in PDF form, read via an application on a smartphone, or designed to be read on a tablet or electronic book such as Amazon´s Kindle. These versions can either be free, such as the applications, or be of a lower cost than hard copies, both for the reader and the institution.

Apuntes, for example, is printed but there is a web portal for it, simple yet easy to use:

There are also electronic newsletters, which are a fast and cost efficient way of letting your audience know about new research and publications, as well as current projects, events and general news. Brookings, the Cato Institute, Chatham House and many others employ this form of communication, and they may be sent out on a weekly or monthly basis. The only catch is that your audience must provide their email address for these newsletters to be sent out.

Think tanks can also publish articles and promote research findings on platforms other than their own. One well known example of this is VoxEU, a policy portal set up by the Centre for Economic Policy Research alonside several other national sites, which seeks to promote researched based analysis on economic and financial policy. Articles are approved by the Editorial Board before being put up on the site. Additionally, its partner sites provide their best articles in Spanish, French and Italian. VoxEU provides RSS feeds announcing new articles by topic and author, to which interested individuals and institutions can subscribe.

Another platform is Yale Environment 360, a publication of the University of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. This online magazine features articles by environmentalists, scientists, journalists and business people on gobal environmental topics.

Working Papers are NOT Working

This post generated quite a debate among some colleagues at ODI: Working Papers are NOT Working. Berk Özler‘s post begins brilliantly:

Working papers are the research equivalent of sweatshirts with pizza stains on them, but we wear them on our first date with our audience.

It is common practice in economics to publish working papers. There are formal working paper series such as NBER, BREAD, IZA, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper Series, etc. With the proliferation of the internet, however, people don’t even need to use these formal working paper series. You can simply post your brand new paper on your website and violà, you have a working paper: put that into your CV! Journals are giving up double-blind refereeing (AEJ is the latest) because it is too easy to use search engines to find the working paper version (it’s not at all clear that this is good. See the recent comments on Blattman’s blog, which make it look far from clear that giving up on double-blind peer-review is a good idea). But, do the benefits of making these findings public before peer-review outweigh the costs? I recently became very unsure…

The point of the post is that working papers are not ‘work in progress’ any more. Or, at least, this is not how they are seem by their readers. Used to a faster pace of communications, few readers go back looking for the ‘final versions’ of the studies. And few researchers revisit their working papers and update them with journal articles or books.

My question: Is the web changing the way we access information and learn so much that working papers are a thing of the past? Isn’t this blog, in a way, a work in progress? I often use it to test ideas. Or to see if I can put together an argument that I have been struggling with. I get comments and incorporate them to, hopefully, revisit the idea at a later stage.

An introductory guide to evidence based influence -but don’t forget the context

The Open Society Institute has published a guide on advocacy that may be very useful for think tanks.

The steps suggested are very similar to the ones in the RAPID Outcome Mapping Approach, but I would include an often forgotten first step:

To really understand the policy making process, environment and the its key players. This can be done following a political economy analysis of the policy issue or problem -or even undertaking a political economy analysis of evidence uptake for the particular policy issue.  Other tools like social network analysis, influence mapping, etc. may be useful.

This ‘step zero’ was incorporated into ROMA (it is not in the link above) last year when we decided that users were getting too focused on following steps rather than thinking about why some strategies may be more appropriate than others.

In fact, we tested this new step at a workshop in Uganda organised by the Danish Development Research Network to help universities across Africa make a better case for more investment in tertiary education. The objective of the step is to encourage a discussion rather than a box-filling exercise.

The idea is that teams should start the planning process by establishing a vision (how the future looks like and the particular role that they play in this future world and in relation to other relevant actors), considering the way change takes place (using theories or examples to illustrate this and highlighting the role various actors), and reflecting on their organisations’ own nature and competencies (and their relation to others).

The teams are then encouraged to discuss these issues along side each other, allowing the answers for each to influence and revise the others.

This process reflects the nature of policy change and influence –slightly chaotic and iterative, strengthened by feedback loops. Out of this discussion, policy objectives, details of the context, key actors, possible approaches to influence, risks and opportunities, etc. should emerge. In some cases, this is all that will be necessary and no greater detail has to be sought.

For example, last year I had a chat with the director of a think tank in Ecuador  about this. After a few minutes we were able to establish that in their policy context, environmental policy, policymaking tends to be quite legalistic -policy change happening as the consequences of legal challenges from communities, local governments and NGOs. The organisation itself is staffed by lawyers and legally trained people who are able to tackle these issues. To contribute to change then their best way forward is to undertake three lines of work: research and analysis of possible issues to be addressed, training and advice to local communities and governments, and working with the media to raise awareness about the issues and legal challenges.

The ROMA process (or the one suggested by OSI) can then kick in: define the policy objectives, study the context, identify and assess the position of key actors, establish specific policy objectives for them, develop a strategy, consider the resources and capacities necessary to implement the strategy and develop a monitoring, learning and evaluation framework.

on Monitoring and Evaluating Influence

Harry Jones from RAPID just published a background note written as a part of a project that we worked on last year with Jeremy Clarke to develop a How to Note on M&E of Policy Influencing for DFID (the HTN is forthcoming but maybe this presentation on M&E of policy influence I did for the Think Tank Initiative may be of interest). The project was based on the lessons learned (and the limits of) on a review of DFID’s health policy influencing and a How to Note on Policy Influencing I worked on with Matt Gordon and Jessica Proust based on the RAPID Outcome Mapping Approach (ROMA).

From Harry’s paper:

This paper provides an overview of approaches to monitoring and evaluating policy influence, based on an exploratory review of the literature and selected interviews with expert informants, as well as ongoing discussions and advisory projects for policy-makers and practitioners who also face the challenges of monitoring and evaluation. There are a number of lessons that can be learned, and tools that can be used, that provide workable solutions to these challenges. While there is a vast breadth of activities that aim to influence policy, and a great deal of variety in theory and practice according to each different area or type of organisation, there are also some clear similarities and common lessons.

Rather than providing a systematic review of practice, this paper is intended as a guide to the topic, outlining different challenges and approaches, with some suggestions for further reading.

Also very useful is CIPPEC’s manual for M&E and KM of policy influence (in Spanish).

UK think tanks and policy landscape

Last weekend, the Independent published a review of the most influential think tanks in the UK policy scene. Politics? Nothing that a bit of thinking can’t cure provides some interesting detail and insights into the British think tank community.

First, the attention on think tanks emerges in part from the roles they will play in developing the three main party’s manifestos for the 2015 elections. It is also announcing a rather interesting initiative in which think tanks from the capital get together to attempt to convince an audience of peers and the general public to support their ideas.

Second, I was interested to confirm that many of these think tanks are in fact quite small. Annual budgets under a million pounds are nor uncommon.

Third, they are fairly new organisations and their political or ideological positions are somewhat identifiable.

Fourth, the revolving door that exists between think tanks and the government is wide open and working at different levels.

Bruce Bartlett on Think Tank Politicisation | and think tanks and the media

Bruce Bartlett comment son an article by Mark Thoma  on Think Tank Politicization. He highlights a couple of excellent points/ideas/recommendations in the way that think tanks engage with the media:


Conservatives understand–better than liberals, I think–that most stories are lucky to last one news cycle. If the reporter later decides that the liberal study was really worthwhile and the conservative one was worthless, he isn’t going to go back and do another article on the subject. It’s water over the dam.


One consequence of Heritage’s breakthrough in developing short, readable, time-sensitive policy analyses is that they were just as useful to the media as they were on Capitol Hill. Reporters had the same need for predigested studies written in plain English, as opposed to the sorts of books written in academese that were the stock-in-trade of traditional think tanks like Brookings.

Unfortunately, nothing is an island. Choices made by individual organisations, in the context of a more polarised political and media climate as well as increased competition in the marketplace of ideas, can lead to changes in the whole system

Bartlett suggests that as a consequence:

the talking head approach to policy debate on the cable news channels reinforces all the negative aspects of this development. Once upon a time, I used to do a lot of cable interviews. At first, I was often paired with people I knew at other think tanks who were slightly more liberal than I am. But because we both shared common facts and knew the limits of what could be demonstrated through serious academic research, we naturally tended to agree with each quite a bit.

Having two guests who agree with each other is the last thing cable channels want; they want their guests to be 180 degree polar opposites. So gradually I noticed that I was no longer being paired with peers from liberal think tanks, but people I had never heard of who were identified as “Democratic consultant” or something like that. Such people clearly knew virtually nothing about the subject we were discussing and were just there to endlessly repeat talking points that someone gave them.

That was bad enough, but over time it got worse. I could see that I was going up against people who had media training. They knew how to filibuster by using more than their share of air time and forced me to use my time responding to their charges at the expense of making my own points. Eventually, I pretty much stopped either doing cable interviews or watching cable news at all.


Goran’s recommendations on think tank rankings

Goran Buldioski offers another take on the rankings in his blog Goran’s musings and some very interesting recommendations that I republish below:

As someone who works with think tanks, studies think tanks, writes about think tanks, I see very little value in it. Therefore, it is high time to move to alternatives to this study:

  1. Best national think tanks (see the suggestion of Enrique Mendizabal) modeled on the UK’s ranking done by Prospect magazine. Note: Thematic categories could be also established.
  2. Best Policy study ( for example see the Policy Association for Open Society (PASOS) award for the best study penned by their members).
  3. Best advocacy campaign by a think tanks (consisted of a series of policy products (from op-ed to book), events (briefings, debates, seminars, conferences, training events etc.).
  4. Best online presentation. [Or maybe best online communications strategy?]
  5. Best design and communication strategy

I would add categories related to:

  1. Best long term policy research programme -that has maintained and developed a reputation on a specific issue with or without support
  2. Best prospective think tank -thinking about the future challenges of its country
  3. Best think tank to work for -to highlight the human capital development role that think tanks have
  4. Think tank to watch

I would also encourage categories related to the other members of the policy space:

  1. Best use of research based evidence by the media
  2. Best or most innovative funder
  3. Most evidence based political party manifesto

At this level, whatever category would provide an opportunity to have a real public conversation about think tanks and their contexts (and histories). No need for a ranking: one winner and some honorary mentions would do. And if there are disagreements then these can be aired publicly and addressed rather quickly before the next award.

It would encourage communication between think tank directors and with their audiences (and possible members of the panel), serve as a platform from which to launch important new policy ideas and debates, contribute to the development of more informed cadres of journalists, policymakers and funders, etc.

Do have a look at Goran’s comments about the inconsistencies in the ranking -they are quite to the point.

good advice on effective influencing (even if it may have been all made up)

I found this interesting article by Scott Walter on Pew’s Non-Neutrality that challenges the independence of  Pew in the pursuit of an open internet. Anyway, what I thought I’d share with you is a report called Net Neutrality for the Win that has very useful advice on how to develop an influencing strategy with a particular focus on framing the debate and targeting key audiences with very clear and convincing arguments.

It introduces the Harmony Institute Method for Entertainment Communication:

Four Steps to Integrating Behavioral Science into Entertainment

Our entertainment projects follow a four-step methodology for the application of behavioral science into entertainment.

Step One begins with a thorough review of the specific social issue to be addressed. It is essential that communicators develop a comprehensive understanding of their topic of choice, examining perspectives from existing research and sourcing the opinions of experts, academics and policy-makers. Communicators should look to contact leading organizations within the sector that can offer policy goals and incentives for behavior change for the public. This process also assists in revealing audiences that may be receptive to messaging, and the media platforms they frequent.

Step Two is concerned with locating and understanding target audiences. Most campaigns are effective with a combination of core and persuadable audiences who can be identified through polling, focus groups, and the demographics of supporting organizations. Information gleaned from this step narrows the behavioral science models that should be employed. It also clarifies the media platforms (mobile, web, television, film, ect.) that will successfully transmit compelling information.

The report on net neutrality goes to great lengths identifying the key audiences of the campaign (step 2), including ‘core supporters’ and ‘persuadables’.  It describes them as:


• Ages 18-39

• Male, Caucasian, and registered Democrat

• Over $100k yearly household income

• High level of media and Internet literacy

• See the Internet as a public service just like neighborhood utilities or the nations highways

• Familiar with “net neutrality” as a principle and a term

• Spend more than 20 hours a week online for personal use


• Ages 18-39 or over 60

• Predominantly African American or female

• Self-assign as liberal

• Unmarried

• Live in the U.S. South or rural areas

• Annual household incomes of between $30k- $50k

• Unfamiliar with “net neutrality” as a principle and term until exposed to a measured debate

Step Three focuses on developing recommendations for messaging. Theoretical models from the behavioral sciences are applied with regard to the issue and the known perspectives of target audiences. By working with media professionals who have the artist vision and expertise to create projects that compete on a national level, organizations can employ these recommendations in mass media productions.

The document puts forward 7 recommendations for narrative communication that I summarise (and generalise below):

  1. Don’t allow the opposition to scare your audiences. Fight their arguments by reframing them in your advantage.
  2. Choose the right words to convince your audiences that they can do something to avoid a disastrous outcome -if nothing is done or if things remain the same (or you do not get away with what you want) -they even offer a list of words to use.
  3. Challenge how people view the issue, space or resource you are working on (in this case how they view the internet) for example by helping to develop a sense of ownership of the resource.
  4. Make it personal.
  5. Magnify your message in groups.
  6. Ask for a commitment more than once -e.g. Join a coalition of supporters, such as, Call or write state and congressional leaders and explain why they should endorse net neutrality, Sign petitions directed to Congressional leaders in support of the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, Spread the word by e-mail/Twitter/Facebook, Donate money to organizations lobbying for the open Internet, Support new FCC rules that will ensure net neutrality for all Internet users and businesses at, etc.
  7. Tell a story. In this case, they argue that the story about the open internet is one about civil liberties and economic freedom -not just about techie or nerdy issues. The report adds: Creating narratives about how the Internet impacts people’s lives in positive and profound ways will be more effective than taking a cognitive or policy viewpoint.

Step Four is comprised of impact assessment. Drawing up case studies illuminates the vital lessons learned during a campaign to transform public perception and behavior.

And to finish, some interesting resources from the ref section:

Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice (5th Ed.). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Schiappa, E., Gregg, P. B., & Hewes, D. E. (2006). Can one TV show make a difference? Will & Grace and the Parasocial Contact Hypothesis. Journal of Homosexuality, 51(4), 15-37. doi:l0.1300/ J082v51n04_02.

Barker, K. & Sabido, M (Eds.). (2005, January 6). Soap Operas for Social Change to Prevent HIV/AIDS: A Training Guide for Journalists and Media Personnel. Population Media Center. Retrieved from

Appel, M. & Richter, T. (2007). Persuasive effects of fictional narratives increase over time. Media Psychology, 10(1), 113-134.

Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. (2009). The Psychology of Climate Change Communication: A Guide for Scientists, Journalists, Educators, Political Aides, and the Interested Public. New York.

Observations: The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again

I should be going bed now but could not wait until tomorrow morning to post this fantastic article by Bora Zivkovic about the history of science and journalism told through the lens of the development of new media –Observations: The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again.:

It is 2010. The Internet has been around for 30 years, the World Wide Web for 20. It took some time for the tools to develop and spread, but we are obviously undergoing a revolution in communication. I use the word “revolution” because it is so almost by definition – when the means of production change hands, this is a revolution.

The means of production, in this case the technology for easy, cheap and fast dissemination of information, are now potentially in the hands of everyone. When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, we call that ‘citizen journalism.’ And some of those citizens possess much greater expertise on the topics they cover than the journalists that cover that same beat. This applies to science as well.

In other words, after the deviation that was the 20th century, we are going back to the way we have evolved as a species to communicate – one-to-one and few-to-few instead of one-to-many. Apart from technology (software instead of talking/handwriting/printing), speed (microseconds instead of days and weeks by stagecoach, railroad or Pony Express, see image above) and the number of people reached (potentially – but rarely – millions simultaneously instead of one person or small group at a time), blogging, social networking and other forms of online writing are nothing new – this is how people have always communicated. Like Montaigne. And the Republic of Letters in the 18th century. And Charles Darwin in the 19th century.

His account of this history touches on a number of important issues for think tanks today; in particular the shared history of research and journalism, and the new potential capacity to communicate with our audiences directly -with no intermediaries or filters. The same technologies provide our audiences with the tools to design their own filters and become intelligent (critical) consumers of information (I found this following some links on twitter, by the way: you can follow onthinktanks too).

In Zivkovic’s account, scientists are re-learning how to communicate with non-scientists and taking advantage of the simplicity of blogs, twitter, wikipedia, etc. In the social sciences the same thing is happening. VoxEU (I’ll blog about this some other day) is a perfect example of a direct communication channel between economists and their audiences -good content, an editor and the web platform are all that is needed: no communication managers, complex communication strategies, media strategies, media contacts, etc.

After all, free from the pressure of the traditional media and the need to reach as large an audience as possible, these new media channels allow researchers/scientists to target niche groups of genuinely interested people. And this provides an excellent opportunity to develop more meaningful relationships –stronger ties– and engage in proper conversations that facilitate the communication of complex ideas.

Anyway, it is a long article -but worth reading.



on measuring the cost effectiveness of think tanks

I am no a fan of measuring the value of think tanks by looking at website hits and press mentions but that does not mean that these do not help to tell a part of the story. This press release by CEPR, based on a study by FAIR: Right Ebbs, Left Gains as Media ‘Experts’, of the cost effectiveness of the most widely cited US think tanks provides an interesting take on this.

I guess that it makes sense as a comparator between similar organisations -at least between organisations that are playing under more or less the same rules; as is the case in the US think tank scene.

This does not mean that this type of analysis would work across borders -comparing, say the US with he UK, or countries within Latin America or Africa.

For instance, this morning, Nick Scott, ODI’s online communications manager sent us this Books Google Ngram comparing ODI with the Institute of Development Studies, the Center for Global Development and Brookings. It is not only an unfair comparison between the UK and the US; but also between the international development focus of the first three and the more general focus of the latter.


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