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The Editor, on a landmark for The Conversation

View from the London office, with a Conversation logo superimposed over some of our local flora. Khalil A. Cassimally, Author provided

Five years ago, the first content commissioned by The Conversation in the UK went live. At the time, the project attracted some attention from other media. Most was pretty welcoming and positive. But not all of it was. One reporter from The Times (London) fixated on the aspect of our model that gives academic authors sign-off on anything we publish. We were then, and remain today, particularly proud of the fact that writers on The Conversation are involved up to and beyond the point of publication. We believe that’s good for authors, but also for the public, who know that anything they read in The Conversation has the blessing of its creators. It has not been spun, manipulated or misrepresented. What you see is what has been written and agreed to by the expert author in collaboration with a professional Conversation editor.

That feels even more important today than it did half a decade ago. When we launched, we hoped to build trust with readers. Trust in parts of the mainstream media had been eroding. At the same time, old business models were failing and new methods of publishing opening up to anyone with a smartphone. We sensed an information fog had descended, confusing much of the public and causing many people to turn away from news services – to switch off. Five years on, and amid that now thick fog, different versions of the truth compete for public attention. We therefore feel that the value of what academic expert authors provide, via this publication, is greater than ever. There need to be places where readers can seek accounts of events, explanations of research and interpretations of international developments that are grounded in reliable knowledge.

Of course, people will take issue with certain perspectives and analyses – that is to be encouraged. We could hardly be The Conversation if we did not support debate. But while you may disagree with them (and often they disagree with each other), our authors do know what they are talking about. Many have spent entire careers studying, and investigating the matters they write about for us – we are always clear that authors must write on their area of academic expertise. That is a condition of publication.

A new kind of journalism

This approach creates a very different kind of journalism. Many traditional outlets channel knowledge to the public through a small group of columnists who will, for example, one day express views on developments in the Middle East before turning their hand the next to the state of the British National Health Service. We take a different approach, by going to those who really know what they are talking about on specific subjects – and pushing that expertise out when it is of maximum value to a wide, global readership.

The establishment of our bureau in London was a key step in the internationalisation of The Conversation, which had launched in Australia in 2011. Since 2013, operations have also set up in the United States, Africa, France, Canada and Indonesia. Further editions are planned. In northern Europe, our English-language service has gone from having the support of a core of 13 Founding Partner universities to 79 member institutions. This is how the service is funded – allowing us to employ editors to work with academics to create the content posted on the site and sent out via emails every day.

From the opening tranche of articles, we have sought to correct misconceptions, provide crisp research analysis, and illuminate sometimes complex matters in an entertaining way. That has seen us regularly tackle the big issues of the era. On day one, for example, we looked at why refugees were really travelling to the UK. We considered new approaches to tackling harmful bacteria. And we asked: are you a Viking?

Five years on, we bring you a raft of contributions including thoughts from Norway on Brexit, research into why men in physically active jobs die early, and how technology could benefit the countryside.

Along the way, putting academics in seats normally occupied by reporters has spawned interesting results. When interviewing Yanis Varoufakis, we found that some of the world’s top economists asked rather different questions than those a journalist might. When chronicling the fast-moving conflict in Ukraine, we discovered that the right author on the scene could provide real-time journalism infused with decades of detailed academic knowledge. Just this week, we saw another sharp example of this form of live academic reporting, from researchers in the West Bank on a harrowing – and historic – day.

Our numbers

Since May 16, 2013, the Conversation UK has published close to 20,000 articles by almost 12,000 authors, launched two podcast series and hosted a variety of live events. More such innovation will follow. Last month, the written work of The Conversation globally reached an audience of around 37m people – and more than 14m of those came via the edition run out of London.

The Conversation, a not-for-profit registered charity backed by a Board of Trustees and an Editorial Board, has taken academic expertise directly to a wider audience than was possible before it existed. And such incredible reach is in part due to our republishing strategy. This allows – and indeed encourages – mainstream media to republish content that first appears on The Conversation at no cost. All they must do is respect our republishing guidelines – and, in particular, refrain from changing content. The experts’ words must continue on their journey unaltered.

This approach means that our authors’ articles are in leading publications around the world every day – from the Washington Post, to the BBC, CNN, the i newspaper, the Guardian, ABC News, the New Zealand Herald, Scroll India, Le Monde, El Pais, Quartz and many, many more. Often authors appear on broadcast media and give evidence to policymakers as a direct result of the pieces they write. Some find their work picked up by other academics, and new research projects forged as a result.

Our editors (now 20, we started with five) work tirelessly with authors to make this content happen. It simply would not exist without their creativity and endeavour. So, when considering these words I asked them to highlight some of the pieces they felt had been particularly memorable over the past five years. Among those mentioned were this live reaction as it was becoming clear the Donald Trump would be the 45th president of the United States; ponderings on why time seems to go more quickly as we get older; detailed, but accessible first-hand coverage of the discovery of gravitational waves; aeronautical explanations of how dragons on Westeros can fly; live coverage of the moment the UK’s journey out of the European Union began; research into how much effort women must make to avoid being assaulted; and this report from a professor who lived as a hunter gatherer to see if it would improve the health of his gut. It’s a random sample and indicates no favouritism, but provides an illustration of the breadth and quality of work emerging through The Conversation’s editing process.

Global republishers

Almost all of our articles are republished, but we’re also pleased when traditional outlets source their own news articles from Conversation pieces. Indeed, one notable user of The Conversation as a resource in this way has been the aforementioned Times. We’re not always credited, but the authors know how their work has been found. They’re usually very happy, but sometimes indicate that their work has been slightly misrepresented, or misunderstood. Such problems generally do not occur when writing directly for us they say, thanks to the Conversation policy of having academics sign off on all pieces.

In the run-up to our fifth birthday we asked a few of those writers about their experience of direct public engagement via The Conversation. More of their responses are being shared via our Twitter account – @ConversationUK. But just in case you don’t follow that, here’s a flavour:

Victoria Anderson, researcher/teacher in journalism, media and cultural studies, Cardiff University

Writing for The Conversation has been a great experience; I’ve felt supported by the editorial staff and it’s great to have one’s work disseminated across a variety of platforms. Pitching writing towards a more general audience is valuable if you don’t want to be stuck in an academic ghetto; it’s a great way to share ideas and knowledge in an accessible and democratic format. Pieces of mine have been republished across the world, on platforms ranging from Newsweek to the Independent, and it’s all been very positive.

Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder professor of geography, University of Oxford

The Conversation is the best online publishing outlet there is for academics who want to reach a wide audience, have something of importance to say, and want to publish in a source that is reputable. The editing is dedicated and thorough.

Penny Spikins, senior lecturer in the archaeology of human origins, University of York

The Conversation really works to get people thinking about new topics that they might never have come across before. There is something really rewarding about knowing that your research is inspiring people to think differently.

James Brown, lecturer in biomedical sciences, Aston University

Writing for The Conversation has changed the way I approach public engagement. It provides a vehicle to reach a huge audience which previously was unavailable to me. The value of this to the academic community and wider general public cannot be underestimated. As experts we can disseminate both our own research and other key findings quickly, accurately and understandably to a general audience and this is a game changer for communicating research.

So, on the occasion of our fifth birthday, we say a huge thank you to all our supporters – university members, board members, readers, and other champions of the project. But most of all we say thank you to the academic experts who give their time and knowledge to make The Conversation what it is, and what it will remain – a free-to-access project for the public good, that seeks to enhance understanding of key international news events and research developments as they happen.

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