On Being “Academic”

This week I went on a training course about publishing research findings. Part of it was a discussion about changes in publishing leaning towards free access to journal articles. I’m all for freedom of information and allowing everyone access, I don’t think knowledge should be locked away and only those with enough money can access it. So this should be a positive thing. However, publishing is a business, so money has to be involved somewhere. Apparently this somewhere is now academics. Many journals are charging the academics who want their work to be accessible to all, online. It’s not cheap either. The Journal of Criminal Justice asks for $3000. This got me to thinking about what I want to be as an academic.

When I first thought about entering into a research career, I was excited by the thought of discovering new things, and the possibility that the things I found out might help people, or reduce reoffending rates in the youth justice system, or make that system fairer. I still want all those things to happen, but I’m questioning how a little. So I do these things by researching and working hard and then only disseminating the results through a journal that is likely only read by other academics and ignored by policy makers? Or do I value the accessibility of my work at $3000 so everyone can read it if they wish to? I haven’t reached a conclusion on that yet. But I do think that charging academics to be heard isn’t a good system. As this becomes more popular within academic publishing, I wonder if blogs will be used more for discussing research and disseminating findings. They’re still free to access by everyone, the only drawback is that blogs aren’t respected in the way that journals are. I hope that this will change, as it could encourage debate and discussion with authors of articles directly, and make our academic communities a bit more joined up.

There is another aspect of journal articles that I find problematic, this may be limited to social sciences, I’m not sure, but I have issues with language. Many journals currently still have a pay wall, which limits access to information. Even if you can get past that though, the language used in academic work can be off-putting. I understand that sometimes specialist terms are necessary, but often academic work can be talking about simple things in really complex language. This issue has been mentioned before, there are articles that point it out beautifully, and they happen to only use simple language. There’s also Up Goer, which challenges you to describe your work using the 1000 most common words in the English language. http://splasho.com/upgoer5/ My attempt at this is below, it’s very difficult to talk about the mental health of young offenders without the words, “health”, “crime”, “youth” etc.

“Some young people do bad things and the police have to talk to them. A lot of these young people have problems with how they think and act. There are people who work with them to help, but often they can’t do as much as they’d like because of the way they’re told they have to work. I’m trying to find if there’s a simple way of letting them work as best they can.”

Essentially you have to imagine you’re talking to a small child. I don’t think that paragraph explains my research at all well, but it would give someone a basic idea of what I do. I’m not suggesting that we write like that all the time, but it does make me wonder, if we can explain a concept simply, without losing any of its meaning, why don’t we? I know I’m guilty of this myself, and when I look at some of my writing and wonder why I phrased things a certain way, the answer is often, “to sound academic”. I worry that if I don’t use the big words and explain things in a way that makes it difficult to understand I won’t be considered good enough by other academics. And I know that it’s entirely silly. Not only is it silly, it stops me from working as well as I could, or writing as much as I should because I’m scared that it will be judged by other people as “not good enough”.

The reason I started a PhD was because I was interested in the topic, I had burning questions that needed answering, I wanted knowledge. No knowledge is “not good enough”, it’s just knowledge, sat there, quietly, waiting for someone to discover it and tell other people about it. Does it really matter if we tell people using big or small words? It’s still the same knowledge, just put across in a way that people who might not consider themselves “academic” might find interesting.


About Jess Urwin

Lecturer in social work at De Montfort University, youth justice researcher, musician, crafter, constant reader.
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One Response to On Being “Academic”

  1. Izzy Sticklee says:

    As someone who has to translate academic findings into news stories, I would certainly say sticking to plain English would be a fantastic move. I tried to read some research findings the other day, which was actually about a really moving topic (preventing repeated miscarriage), and it was just impossible to read, I literally had to look up every word, it was like reading French! – http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/giving/priority/medicine/reproduction/bru/

    I absolutely understand that there is an academic need to use precise language when researching and talking about precise things, but using more complex words for the sake of it seems to be part of academic training writing and is absolutely unnecessary. I wish I could remember the word I read, but it just essentially meant (“what my last sentence said”), what a waste of time! Perhaps it’s always worth giving a summary in everyday language as well as focusing on the detail.

    I have actually been providing some training on the use of language in telling stories and sharing research, so it’s a topic I care a lot about. If you want people to hear about, talk about, understand and use your work (and in our case, donate to it so you can do more) – simplicity is key. It’s not about dumbing down, it’s just about making why it is important clear. BBC News and newspapers are absolutely experts at this – difficult topics, clearly written.

    People really do have a limited amount of time, and unless they’re really keen on your topic, they’re not going to go near it if they find it hard to read. Intelligent people don’t want to be challenged constantly, and in terms of attention, they’ll just ignore it if it’s not easy to understand (unless they really have to).

    My advice would be to keep the academic detail where needed and when speaking to the people that need to understand it at that level, but keep it simple the rest of the time. If getting published in difficult to access journals is key to getting your work recognised, then perhaps do it, but also work closely with your university’s communications and fundraising teams to get your stories out to the public and you might get more funding and more chance to share your work! We’re always looking for stories to tell and you’d be amazed how many people don’t want to share their work!

    At least for us, we always want to know your underlying mission with your work and what you hope to achieve by doing it. Once people understand the core idea, like improving the working practices of those that help and transform young people’s lives, then they care more about the detail.

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