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Academics can change the world – if they stop talking only to their peers

Research and creative thinking can change the world. This means that academics have enormous power. But, as academics Asit Biswas and Julian Kirchherr have warned, the overwhelming majority are not shaping today’s public debates.

Instead, their work is largely sitting in academic journals that are read almost exclusively by their peers. Biswas and Kirchherr estimate that an average journal article is “read completely by no more than ten people”. They write:

Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within scientific communities – 82% of articles published in humanities [journals] are not even cited once.

This suggests that a lot of great thinking and many potentially world altering ideas are not getting into the public domain. Why, then, are academics not doing more to share their work with the broader public?

The answer appears to be threefold: a narrow idea of what academics should or shouldn’t do; a lack of incentives from universities or governments; and a lack of training in the art of explaining complex concepts to a lay audience.

The ‘intellectual mission’

Some academics insist that it’s not their job to write for the general public. They suggest that doing so would mean they’re “abandoning their mission as intellectuals”. They don’t want to feel like they’re “dumbing down” complex thinking and arguments.

The counter argument is that academics can’t operate in isolation from the world’s very real problems.

They may be producing important ideas and innovations that could help people understand and perhaps even begin to address issues like climate change, conflict, food insecurity and disease.

No incentives

Universities also don’t do a great deal to encourage academics to step beyond lecture halls and laboratories. There are globally very few institutions that offer incentives to their academics to write in the popular media, appear on TV or radio, or share their research findings and opinions with the public via these platforms.

In South Africa, where I conduct research and teach, incentives are limited to more “formal” publication methods. Individual institutions and the Department of Higher Education and Training offer rewards for publishing books, book chapters, monographs or articles in accredited, peer-reviewed journals.

The department pays universities more than R100,000 per full publication unit – for example, one journal article. These funds are given to universities, which then use their own subsidy disbursement schemes to split the funds between the institution, the faculty in which the author works and the author. In some cases, academics receive more funding for articles published in international journals than in local journals.

Catriona Macleod of Rhodes University in South Africa has argued that these financial incentives are an example of the “commodification of research” and that this is “bad for scholarship”. Macleod told University World News:

The incentive system is a blunt instrument that serves the purposes of increasing university income rather than supporting scholarship and knowledge production in South Africa.

There is nothing in the department’s policy that urges academics to share their research beyond academic spaces. There’s no suggestion that public outreach or engagement is valued. And this situation is not unique to South Africa: the “publish or perish” culture is a reality at universities all over the world.

Academics have no choice but to go along with this system. Their careers and promotions depend almost entirely on their journal publication record, so why even consider engaging with the general public?

Learning to write

There is a third factor holding academics back from writing for broader lay audiences: even if they’d like to, they may not know where to start and how to do it.

Writing an article for an academic journal is a very different process to penning one for those outside the academy. Naomi Wolf and Sacha Kopp, in an article examining the issue, wrote:

Academic writing has the benefit of scholarly rigour, full documentation and original thinking. But the transmission of our ideas is routinely hampered … by a great deal of peer-oriented jargon.

Universities have a role to play here by offering workshops and courses to their academics and students. This can help develop creative non-fiction writing skills.

Time for a change

Academics need to start playing a more prominent role in society instead of largely remaining observers who write about the world from within ivory towers and publish their findings in journals hidden behind expensive digital paywalls.

Government and university policies need to become more prescriptive in what they expect from academics. Publishing research in peer-reviewed journals is and will remain highly important. But incentives should be added to encourage academics to share their research with the general public.

Doing this sort of work ought to count towards promotions and should yield rewards for both universities and individual academics.

Quality academic research and innovation are crucial. It is equally important, though, to get ideas out into the world beyond academia. It could make a real difference in people’s lives.

First published on The Conversation

Savo Heleta

Savo Heleta

Dr Savo Heleta works as the manager of Internationalisation at Home and Research at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s Office for International Education (OIE). He is also researcher in OIE’s Research Unit for Higher Education Internationalisation in the Developing World.

1 comment

  • Concerns like those are what led to the setting up of Drug and Alcohol Findings in the UK in 1999, a national project funded by Alcohol Research UK and the Society for the Study of Addiction, web site http://findings.org.uk

    Project editor Mike Ashton and Assistant Editor Natalie Davies monitor research from across the world, identify and obtain the evaluation studies, and select those most relevant to the UK; these also tend to have international relevance to the USA, Australia, continental Europe and beyond. To make the studies intelligible and useful to practitioners, the findings are encapsulated, set in the context of earlier research, and the practice implications are explored. Findings has the largest live drug and alcohol library in Britain (about 15,000 documents) to help get it right.

    In other words, the project does what practitioners would probably never have the time or resources to do – finds the research that matters for developing and improving their work, analysing and making sense of it in ways it is impossible to do without a searchable bank of previous research to help set it in context.

    The project communicates mainly via an email list numbering over 4300, alerting subscribers to new analyses usually at least weekly. These are much more than summaries – they are plain language reformulations and usually accompanied by a thorough critique and commentary, all sent for checking to the original researchers. To add your email address to go to:
    or write to:
    [email protected]

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