Is Academic Research Too Hard To Read? The Academics Say Yes

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In a survey conducted by the United Kingdom’s Emerald Publishing, researchers say they’re not satisfied with how academic publishing presents their work to a world that needs to understand it.

In Brussels, December 21, 2020. The billboard over the Pfizer building entrance says, ‘#ScienceWillWin’. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Alexandros Michailidis

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Sally Wilson: ‘A Clear Role to Play’
It’s hard to think of a time in recent memory when so many have questioned so much scientific research. Almost any guidance from public health scientists today triggers questions and challenges from citizens exhausted by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. People who don’t know an mRNA vaccine from a shot of vodka are in researchers’ faces, while government health services are continually assailed for changing the protocols and contradicting their own precautions.

emerald publishing logoSo it’s an interesting time for the United Kingdom’s Emerald Publishing—a scholarly publisher working in health care and other fields—to have issued today (May 11) the results of a survey looking at researchers’ views of how academic research is currently presented and what it might take to boost its usability.

A total 1,500 academics in an international pool drawn from more than 100 countries were queried for this study, which is of importance to both researchers themselves, of course, and to consumers of research literature.

  • The researchers, needless to say, want their work to be accessible as well as discoverable.
  • Users—as those COVID-weary mask-wearers demonstrate—want science to produce its best work in an intelligible way.

“Overall,” according to Emerald’s spokespeople today in their media messaging on the topic, “the key insight from this research is that there’s a strong desire from the academic community to change the way research is presented to make it more useable in a post-COVID world.”

Does this mean, then, that the scientific community is now better at perceiving how their often critical work can be missed or misunderstood (or even purposefully mangled by political operatives) in time of crisis?

Sally Wilson

Sally Wilson, who heads up publishing at Emerald, says, “The pandemic has clearly accelerated the desire for research to make a difference and solve big, real world problems,” she says, “and has highlighted once again that academia’s culture and incentive structures need re-imagining.

“As publishers, we have a clear role to play working with other scholarly stakeholders, including funders, member organizations and higher education institutions, to highlight the barriers created by academia’s current incentive structures.”

Those incentives, she says, “value the publication of the traditional research article in ‘impact factor’ journals over the research output and content formats that move us beyond the article.

“While other content formats are not new and have been used by researchers to complement the journal article or book chapter, it’s still not as common in the less well-funded social sciences. We need to do our part in re-imagining content forms that appeal to the next generation of learners as well as those outside of academia.”

Wilson’s point is that it’s the info that counts. And if the information isn’t “news we can use,” as the saying goes, then it’s being wasted. We can leave the “re-imagining” to her and look at some of the results from the survey to catch the drift here:

  • Three in five academics tell the new survey that they believe research is difficult to use outside of academia
  • Some 45 percent of academics questioned say they agree that research papers are too long and 57 percent say they feel that research summaries could help to more effectively present findings to decision-makers outside of academia
  • An impressive 64 percent of academics surveyed say they believe there needs to be greater focus on real world experiences and “bringing the outside world in” more to improve the learning experience from academic research
  • An equally impressive 64 percent of academics asked say they believe that content forms such as videos, podcasts, and infographics could help when presenting research

Since there’s just been a mention of infographics, let’s have a visual aid here.

Image: Emerald Publishing, ‘Closing the Impact Gap’

Almost anyone in trade publishing will roll her or his eyes if you say that something reads like “academic writing.” But as you can see in the graphic above, a lot of the academic community members queried for this research not only might roll their eyes, too, but they tend to see a lot of the shortcomings critics might name.

It turns out that only 30 percent of students generally read a full research article, the new study tells us, and 32 percent of those students say they’d like to see some videos, podcasts, and/or infographics used in presenting research to them.

Image: Emerald Publishing, ‘Closing the Impact Gap’

When looked at by geographical region, researchers in North America seem to have been the most put out with how research is currently presented, 33 percent saying it’s “very difficult” and 47 percent saying it’s “difficult” to use outside of  academia. But nowhere was anyone very happy with how research is put forward, with fewer than one in five respondents saying they think that presentation of research material is “easy” or “very easy” to be used outside the academy.

And one of the specialists quoted in the report says it’s really a matter of simply thinking “as any business would, ‘What is our product and how is this valuable to wider society?'”

Debbie Isobel Keeling

That’s Debbie Isobel Keeling, associate dean of engagement at the University of Sussex Business School. “The one-size-fits-all research article is not a sustainable model,” she says.

“This is evident in the results of this survey. Articles are important as a way of mobilizing knowledge in academia, but academia is not the only ‘user’ of research. Instead, articles are one part of what should be a wide portfolio of content and services that meets the different needs and purposes of our societies.”

And one specific area considered is technology enhanced learning. They call that TEL and someone might want to tell researchers that their love of acronyms no one else knows has never been helpful in making their work accessible.

Image: Emerald Publishing, ‘Closing the Impact Gap’

As you can see from the survey’s questions and responses on technology enhanced learning, “both academics and students are keen for technology to play a role in improving both research accessibility and learning.” The snags are in how much tech is too much, of course.

Nevertheless, a look at the survey and its findings is interesting and even reassuring as you realize how many folks inside academia aren’t much happier than lay people are, when it comes to how the research reaches the non-academic world.

The work is based on two surveys run in November and December 2020 and in January of this year. Here’s the landing page for the report and you can download it there as a PDF.

Emerald is using the survey exercise to make some commitments to change. We may all be grateful for this when the next pandemic arrives.


More from Publishing Perspectives on academic publishing is here, more on Emerald Publishing is here, and more on the UK market is here.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As as an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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