Thursday, May 26, 2011

The audience of scholarly research

The Times Higher Education has run a piece citing Peter Riddell, a journalist. Riddell will serve on the Politics and International Studies panel in the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework. A brief excerpt from here:

"[. . .] "If you look at some of the leading political science journals, (you wonder) who the hell reads them. Their main concern is just getting citations in other journals."

He said that academic papers should at least contain abstracts that attempt to explain the research in everyday language. And he added that in many areas of academia - not least the humanities - there was "no reason why language should be technical" even in the main article.

Mr Riddell said he blamed academic culture for prizing opacity and had an "awful lot of sympathy" for academics who felt that they had to fill their papers with jargon, citations and footnotes in order to get them published.

Breaking that mould, he said, required "a bit of courage and a recognition that all this research is taxpayer-funded and that, therefore, there is a duty to explain it to the people who are funding it." [. . .]"

This raises an interesting question: should academic research be written in such a way average citizens can understand? Riddell argues the answer is yes because taxpayers supported it. There are at least two main objections:

1. Suppose we argue that academic research should be accessible to general readers because they funded the research. This assumes that all research is, in fact, supported by taxpayers. This is entirely untrue. First, the government may be a primary means of financial support in the sector, but it is not the only means of such support. If research was not entirely funded by taxpayers, then this duty -- as expressed by Riddell -- would disappear. Secondly, academics may often work long beyond "normal" hours. If my research is done during leisure/unpaid time, then this duty also seems to disappear.

2. A second objection is this. The public often lack full access to scholarly material. Perhaps (ideally) taxpayer-funded research should be made accessible to taxpayers. (Interestingly, the argument is made here for social sciences and humanities -- and not the physical sciences.) If the public does not have access to this research, then why should research be made accessible to an audience that is unlikely to ever read it?

I must say that there is much that I agree with in Riddell's comments. I agree that too often scholarly work is unnecessarily jargon heavy. However, not all jargon is unnecessary and the worry is that this point has gone unnoticed. This makes for a fine public stance and well deserved column inches, but also a monistic "one size fits all" view of contemporary academic research that may not address various realities.

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