Academics need to embrace new ways of writing and sharing research

The old ways aren’t necessarily the best when it comes to academic writing. Shutterstock

Universities are a “thousand-year-old industry on the cusp of profound change”. That’s according to a study that explored Australia’s higher education landscape four years ago. One warning from the report rings true far beyond Australia and all the way around the world:

Over the next ten-15 years, the current public university model … will prove unviable in all but a few cases.

Warning shots are ringing out across the world. But how many academics are actually paying attention? In my experience as a lecturer at a South African university, we continue to placate the two denizens of academia – teaching and research – in the same way we always have. Teaching remains focused on instruction and content reproduction, while most research never makes it beyond journals.

If we continue to teach in outdated ways, we will increasingly lose touch with our students. Equally, if we continue to closet our findings in traditional journals, we may find our hard work increasingly eclipsed by research organisations that use new media to effectively share their findings.

Lots of attention is being given to new ways of teaching. The great news is that there are also exciting new publishing opportunities springing up.

The right to write

On May 12 2015 I published my first article with The Conversation Africa. One year and ten articles later, I’ve started to view my “right to write” in a totally different way. For more than 20 years as an academic, writing has been more of a duty than a need – let alone a right. Productivity units must be met. Papers must be written and published in approved journals. Even the joy of writing for conferences, which can generate spirited discussion, has been removed. Conference presentations don’t contribute much to one’s chance of promotion.

Of course there is great merit in writing for journals. These have been one of the primary stores of human knowledge, and their peer review process foregrounds credible research – most of the time. They teach academics how to write carefully argued pieces, and the best ones hold us to high standards of quality.

Pragmatically, they also pay. Individual academics and their institutions earn money for each article that’s published in certain accredited journals.

However, the money associated with such journals has created an entire industry that flies counter to a world where sharing knowledge is seen as the right thing to do. Journals are being accused of using the free services of academics to write and the free services of reviewers to edit. They then charge exorbitant prices so that the very same academics can’t even access their own content.

But traditional journals are no longer the be-all and end-all. At least, they shouldn’t be. Open-access journals, blogs, wikis, professional Facebook pages and YouTube channels offer academics a range of exciting, different ways to share their research. These spaces come with a range of benefits.

New media means new benefits

The first of these is the far quicker turnaround time. One of academics’ abiding frustrations with the current publishing process is how long it takes for articles to see the light of day. Research shows that it takes, on average, between nine and 18 months (and sometimes longer) from submission to publication. Writing for new media spaces means that research can be shared within hours or days, opening up the opportunity for discussion, debate and dissent far more quickly.

Your reach is far greater in new media spaces. Some studies estimate that the average journal article is read entirely by only ten people. Tools like Google Analytics can help academics to track their readership in new media spaces. Some sites, like The Conversation, have their own metrics systems – from this, I know that each of my articles is read on average 4,000 times.

Greater reach leads to far greater exposure. This can take the form of comments from academics around the world, invitations to collaborate, and TV and radio interviews. This takes academic research far beyond conferences and journals. I’ve discussed my work on different platforms, including international newspapers, and have been drawn into several local and international research collaborations. Isn’t that sort of work the point of publishing?

New media spaces can also be less intimidating for young, inexperienced academics than established journals are. Getting used to writing, finding your own voice and presenting your work on a public platform is all good practice for journal writing. Universities often offer programmes designed to help young academics develop and strengthen their writing, and these are useful tools as well.

Finally, new media spaces offer a valuable opportunity for feedback, conversation and even correction. They’re not about getting it perfect upfront – they’re about learning, arguing and altering. This encourages the kind of dialogue and idea sharing that any academic should value.

Stepping out of our academic closet

Change isn’t coming to academia – it’s here. And the one thing you don’t do in the path of an avalanche is stand still. The privilege of just talking about new teaching approaches and new publishing opportunities has passed. If academics don’t make bold moves to change how we use new platforms and technologies, we ourselves are at risk of becoming irrelevant.

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