How to write a research synthesis report (or how I conquered my batteries mountain!)

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The words on the screen are drifting in and out of focus… lithium-ion and sodium-ion, redox flow and redox couples… and, errrrrm, what does ‘roundtrip efficiency’ mean?

It’s April 2018.  I have just returned to work after a sleepless year on maternity leave and been tasked with writing a report on battery technologies and their environmental impacts.

It’s an honour to write about such an important topic – batteries are critical to renewable energy systems and e-mobility – and I am excited about the job ahead.

However, faced with this seemingly insurmountable, not to mention impenetrable, pile of scientific papers upon which to base the report, it’s also easy to feel a little daunted.

I pull myself together. I know that I can do this because I’ve been here before, having successfully delivered reports on a diverse set of topics, from green finance to fish farming – as baffling as some of these topics may have seemed at first.

And sure enough, six months later, Towards the Battery of the Future (as the finished report is now titled) is being handed out to warm approval at high-level international conferences and EU meetings, deemed worthy of attention by top-tier policymakers and captains of industry.

With a glow of satisfaction, I pat myself on the back for having mastered a topic that, initially, I knew very little about. I’m also chuffed to have played a role in sharing the science with wider society.

Research syntheses

Towards the Battery of the Future is one of a number of reports I have worked on for Science for Environment Policy over the past 8 years. It is an example of a research synthesis – a publication which weaves together research, often from multiple disciplines, to support or influence policy.

In Science for Environment Policy’s case, we distill research to help policymakers protect and enhance our environment.

I can tell you from my time on these reports that producing a research synthesis is a tricky business. I am just starting work on a new report which explores the wonders of pollinators, and it feels a good time to reflect upon how best to go about a research synthesis.

An increasing body of scholarly work is assessing the role and impact of research syntheses, and various techniques for creating them1. This has yielded some interesting principles and frameworks, which provide valuable food for thought and guidelines for action.

This blog post is my nuts-and-bolts contribution to the discussion and, below, we have a handful of pointers, drawn from personal experience. These helped me take the batteries report, and those before it, on the journey from a mystifying blur of pixels to a bona fide publication, and one which may just make the world a better place.

1. Talk to real people

A chat with a well-selected expert can clarify more about a topic than days of scouring through research papers (and certainly more than could ever be gleaned from Wikipedia).

Work on the batteries report really got going after some enlightening conversations with the commissioning policy officer in Brussels and my trusty scientific advisor in Germany. Both helped define what we really need to focus on.

Where does the weight of evidence sit? What are the big debates and unknowns? And, seriously, what does roundtrip efficiency actually mean?

Thanks these chats, the words on my screen start to snap into focus, and, armed with a list of useful keywords, I feel ready to take on the research databases and build this report.

(And, turns out roundtrip efficiency is really a very simple concept. Need to know: you don’t want your batteries to leak too much energy when recharging).

2. And talk to lots of different types of people

I lost count of how many people contributed to and reviewed the batteries report. These helpful souls not only offered useful details, but also balance with their diverse backgrounds, from transport to chemicals.

And it’s not just scientists and policymakers who can help. Businesses, consultants and community groups, for example, are all a treasure trove of information and perspective.

I have been transported from my desk in a grey suburb of Bristol to tropical forests of Central America and windswept fish farms of the Baltic Sea, courtesy of telephone conversations with astonishingly obliging contributors.

With my tabula rasa outset for each report, I do often feel a little ignorant during these chats.  I’ve not quite forgiven the guy who actually shouted at me for asking the wrong questions (owing to my ignorance on the particular topic of the report at the time), but I did come out of that conversation much more knowledgeable than when I went in.

A caveat: the more people involved in a report, the longer it takes – and the risk of missing publication in time for key policy events increases, diminishing the report’s potential impact. In practice, synthesis writers are often faced with the challenge of finding the best way to produce robust content within short timeframes (see also: limited budgets).

3. Your reference manager is your best friend

I’ve seen many a writer get in a twist attempting to manually manage the reams of references that make up a report. Problems often arise as a report continually shifts in form throughout its development; citations get lost, bibliographies get muddled.

I’ve adopted Mendeley to overcome these issues, and do all the awkward formatting for me. It’s not perfect, and I’m always keen to know how others deal with their references, but it sure makes life a lot easier.

4. Keep on truckin’

It is the research that goes into developing a report, and not the actual writing, that drains the most time and energy. A day spent filtering and reading papers can amount to just two or three short paragraphs of text. Producing a research synthesis report is, at times, frustratingly arduous.

However, as Towards the Battery of the Future gradually morphed into a rounded product, I was reminded of why I went into science communication in the first place: it’s the perfect excuse to learn new things. The process of translating between the languages of science and the ‘lay person’ is also something I find undeniably satisfying.

Indeed, as I submit the final draft, I’m wishing I could make my own efficient roundtrip – to go back and do it all again.

Michelle Kilfoyle, Science Writer, Science for Environment Policy

  1. Some recent examples:

The Royal Society & the Academy of Medical Sciences (2018) Evidence synthesis for policy: a statement of principles. https://royalsociety.org/~/media/policy/projects/evidence-synthesis/evidence-synthesis-statement-principles.pdf

Wyborn et al. (2018) Understanding the Impacts of Research Synthesis. Environmental Science & Policy. 86: 72–84. DOI:10.1016/J.ENVSCI.2018.04.013

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