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

What’s the point of academics producing amazing research if they don’t share it widely with the general public? Shutterstock

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.