Since my time as an undergraduate psychology student I have had countless letters published in newspapers and journals.
I usually write about my research specialisms: addictions, gambling, video games, cyberpets, fame, psychology or higher education - areas that I know something about either personally or professionally.
Many people ask me why I do it. I would be lying if I said I did not like seeing my name in print. This, however, is not the main reason. When I first started writing to the press, it was usually just to make what I felt were justified points and to add to, and/or stimulate, debate. But it soon became clear that letter writing had many other beneficial spin-offs.
There is little doubt, for example, that a published letter has the potential to bring about further publicity. For instance, in April 1995, I had a letter published in The Times about the potential addictiveness of scratchcards, in which I described them as "paper fruit machines". Later that afternoon I got a call from London Talk Radio, asking if I would appear on Frank Bough's breakfast show. As a result of this interview, I was suddenly inundated with requests for interviews with other radio stations. Within a very short space of time, I had done about 15 media interviews on scratchcards, establishing myself as the "expert" in the area, although I had never written anything about scratchcards except for the letter. As a consequence, I researched the area more fully and published a paper on the subject in November 1995. This was quoted verbatim by Labour MP Lynne Jones and appeared in Hansard . I then put in a successful grant bid and am now engaged in the study of adolescent scratchcard gambling.
Letters can also be a quick way of disseminating preliminary research results and can occasionally lead to the commissioning of a larger article in the same area. Letter writing means you get known and may be invited to submit letters on a given subject. Many of my missives have led to new contacts.
Writing letters is a great way of raising issues and ideas without having to write a full-blown article. It provides an excellent forum for establishing initial thoughts, novel observations or naming new phenomena. Letters can also be a way of imparting important advice to interested parties and user groups. They can be used to recruit participants for research and, on rare occasions, they can be a form of damage limitation if you have been misquoted.
There are some drawbacks, such as receiving disturbing letters from infuriated parents, far-right groups and religious fundamentalists, and I get countless requests from students for help with their work. But these have not put me off because the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
Mark Griffiths, Psychology Division Nottingham Trent University.
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