Should academics write for a general audience?

Dr Stephen Allen is joined by colleagues from other UK universities for an open discussion on the dual pressures on academics to publish in prestigious journals and engage more widely with the public.

Woman writing on paper in a café

 Dr Stephen Allen is joined by Professors Carole Elliott (Sheffield), Martin Parker (Bristol), and Judi Marshall (Lancaster) for an open discussion on the dual pressures on academics to publish in prestigious journals and engage more widely with the public.

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Opportunities to communicate with audiences beyond academia?

Fake news, post-truth, the ‘end of experts’ and anti-intellectualism have become accepted ideas in regular use in news and popular culture. Academics have a responsibility to respond by engaging in public debates about the role of ‘experts’, and exploring questions about ‘truth’ in news and research. But part of the problem is how academics bring their ideas to the public. Articles are focused on developing theories and tend to be dominated by complex terminology rather than engaging in, and provoking public debate. Until recently, most research was out of public reach, locked away behind hefty journal subscriptions pay walls. However, the move to provide open access to journal articles creates more possibilities to communicate with audiences beyond academia than ever before.

For academics, having research published in top journals is often central to keeping your job and career progression because of the perceived value to universities (related to university league table rankings, supposed research quality and performance management). The resulting ‘publish or perish’ mentality means that it is imperative that academics ‘master the art’ of publishing in journals, in which articles are expected to conform to accepted ways of writing. Academic colleagues tend to joke that they spend substantial amounts of their time writing journal articles which nobody reads. That is perhaps a slight exaggeration, as some people do read them and some articles get lots of attention. However, often journal articles are only read by a handful of academics who are also writing on connected topics or exploring related questions.

There is significant variety across academic subjects in how research is conducted, written-up and reviewed. I work in a Management School and my experiences of publishing and reviewing are limited to journals in the area of management and organisations. In this area journals are recognised and ranked into a pecking order in relation to their perceived quality and significance. There is much variety between journals, but to characterise what an ‘average’ journal article looks like they are about 9000 words long, they position the research in relation to a particular topic and question of significance, describe how the study was completed, presenting and analysing the findings. Crucially an article needs to explain how the study has extended our understanding to develop associated theories.

Possibilities for academic writing?

There are some excellent writers who create very compelling and interesting articles (e.g. here and here), but academic writing is a genre which is often pretty dull. Even the most committed academic can find themselves becoming a ‘scavenger’, skim reading to get as quickly as possible to the key statements that are relevant to cite in their writing before they get bored and start reading something else. Why would people outside academia want to read a piece of writing that even the most committed academic reader can find boring?

Many academics might be quite happy dedicating a substantial proportion of their working life to writing articles that are barely looked at. Personally, I would rather be able to craft a piece of writing that was accessible to a broader audience to help others question and reflect on how different information sources (‘expert’, ‘fake’ or ‘truth’) can help them to understand the world they are in. The brief excerpt below is an example of some writing practices I suggest in a recently published article including crossed out text and notes, it refers to research interviews completed with senior managers in the energy and power industry about ecological sustainability.

Through the analysis I found myself increasingly lost and confused about where these managers were placing themselves and how they were seeking to be identified in our conversations about sustainability. The managers’ constructions of the challenges associated with sustainability, including some of them explicitly suggesting that they saw tensions between working to fulfil their businesses' objectives and acting on their concerns relating to sustainability, appeared to upset the potential to make non-contradictory sense when trying to place themselves as being good corporate managers and human beings. It was all very convenient that they were able to hold it all together and then deflect responsibility away to their constructions of distant others (politicians, China, bigger businesses ..)[Note – sounds too much like I’m trying to 'take a pop at them' – delete it?] However, perhaps the more surprising thing was that I had considered that there might be a close relationship and strong connectivity between what the corporate managers said and where they chose to place themselves in the world, expecting that they would tend to embody their exalted organizational positions. Was my belief that managers and people would more generally have something resembling a consistent thread linking their thoughts and actions deeply naïve?

This excerpt is from my journal article which challenges accepted forms of academic writing that discuss how we manage and organise. My article was delicately described by a colleague as “quite dense”, and it is positioned as about ‘posthuman writing’. Ironically, in its early drafts the article was a more accessible read for general audiences, because originally all of it attempted to demonstrate an alternative way of writing. However, the revision process led to the more accessible writing becoming contained into one section. The conventions of academic writing in the journals which I submitted it to over the five years that I had tried to publish it, meant I had to been told to write a substantial argument to justify why the ways I had written differently were acceptable.

Potential for change?

My article (public version) tries to be explicit in articulating the messiness around how academic research gets done, how choices are made and imposed about what is studied and how accounts of researching are created. What I hope the article will open up is how research is often a messy and confusing process, which happens in particular places, with particular people, at particular moments. I want to show the imperfect human-being researcher (“vulnerable and confused refugee”) instead of an immaculate academic (“heroic and knowing discoverer”). I argue that much of the ‘texture’ of the person-academic moving through the world researching and writing gets lost to being ‘background work’, that is not allowable in journal articles, and these aspects can make research compelling, engaging and high-quality.

I am not trying to convince you that I have got it and this is the way forward. But that there is an opportunity to challenge what is typical and acceptable in journal articles to open up (benefiting from increasing open access) new spaces for public conversations. Doing so could support greater questioning and exploration around topics such as Fake news, post-truth, the 'end of experts' and anti-intellectualism. New forums for academic writing which offer a space to write in a digestible format about current affairs are a good idea, but as journals articles are core work for academics, this is where the boundaries for writing need to be challenged and reshaped to allow in a wider audience.

Responses from academics

"I agree with the sentiments expressed in the short piece you sent to me. My own frustration with academic writing arises from a mixture of things. The way my heart sinks when I read awful, formulaic writing and my own desire not to cause that suffering in others. The thrill I feel when I read funny, surprising and arresting writing and my desire to try to do that too – to give people pleasure. Yet I do understand how colleagues and especially junior ones are trapped in regimes of bad writing: banal and obsequious to editorial elites. So, I guess my desire is to urge people (including my students) to see their writing as potentially a radical act, and to model disruptive writing in its many forms myself."

Amanda Sinclair, Professorial Fellow, Melbourne Business School

"Stephen Allen is trying to provoke us to think about academic writing, particularly in the social sciences, and most particularly in business and management. His claim is that the language that most academic writers use is exclusionary, alienating to the majority of ordinary readers. If we really want to be read, he says, then we need to write differently. Just so, but is most academic writing written to be widely read? I doubt it. My sense is rather that it is produced in response to the need to publish, the need to have items on a CV which in turn drives appointment, promotion, institutional rankings, salary and so on. Academic writing is, in that sense, not about what is written, but about the fact that it is written, and then counted, tabulated, and monetized. If we want to change academic writing, it is not enough to change academic writers. Rather, we must understand the knowledge/power relations that produce the contemporary academic career, and then change them."

Professor Martin Parker, Department of Management, Bristol University

"Stephen Allen is provoking academics to think differently about how research is communicated. Never before have scholars, employed by institutions of higher education, been under such pressure to produce 'outputs' that are on the whole read by only a few. At the same time, the role of scholarly research and expertise is increasingly under attack by populist voices who are inherently anti-intellectual. While I think writing differently in academic articles is one step towards making scholarly research more readable to non-academic readers, we need to embrace other forms of communication. To do this we need to ease unrealistic performative pressures on academics to write one 4* paper after another. Only in doing so will academics have the space to consider how to use different technologies to articulate and communicate their research to a wider audience."

Professor Carole Elliott, Sheffield University Management School, University of Sheffield

"I have great sympathy with the questions Stephen is raising. Pressure to publish in so-called high quality ‘international’ journals, and the consequences in ensuing review and editorial processes, has had great impacts during the last twenty years in the UK. I think these pressures silence and constrain academics at a time when we should be especially vocal, challenging and creative – should be engaging especially in relation to urgent issues of sustainability and inequality. The pressures can also isolate academics, stop them exploring alongside other concerned citizens and then speaking accessibly, directly and also humbly in engaged conversations. One unintended consequence of current pressures to publish is the trashed time it is costing academics and their institutions. What if we start to count the time, energy, commitment, hope and anxiety spent on the articles that are rejected, that do not get published? And could those of us in management schools simultaneously be accused of moral negligence when so much is at stake and urgent as climate scientists and others tell us?"

Judi Marshall, Professor Emerita, Department of Organisation, Work and Technology, Lancaster University Management School