Is Academic Research Too Hard To Read? The Academics Say Yes

From Publishing Perspectives:

It’s hard to think of a time in recent memory when so many have questioned so much scientific research. Almost any guidance from public health scientists today triggers questions and challenges from citizens exhausted by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. People who don’t know an mRNA vaccine from a shot of vodka are in researchers’ faces, while government health services are continually assailed for changing the protocols and contradicting their own precautions.

So it’s an interesting time, then, for the United Kingdom’s Emerald Publishing—a scholarly publisher working in health care and other fields—to have issued today (May 11) the results of a survey looking at researchers’ views of how academic research is currently presented and what it might take to boost its usability.

A total 1,500 academics in an international pool drawn from more than 100 countries were queried for this study, which is of importance to both researchers themselves, of course, and to consumers of research literature.

The researchers, needless to say, want their work to be accessible as well as discoverable.
Users—as those COVID-weary mask-wearers demonstrate—want science to produce its best work in an intelligible way.
“Overall,” according to Emerald’s spokespeople today in their media messaging on the topic, “the key insight from this research is that there’s a strong desire from the academic community to change the way research is presented to make it more useable in a post-COVID world.”

Does this mean, then, that the scientific community is now better at perceiving how their often critical work can be missed or misunderstood (or even purposefully mangled by political operatives) in time of crisis?

Sally Wilson, who heads up publishing at Emerald, says, “The pandemic has clearly accelerated the desire for research to make a difference and solve big, real world problems,” she says, “and has highlighted once again that academia’s culture and incentive structures need re-imagining.

“As publishers, we have a clear role to play working with other scholarly stakeholders, including funders, member organizations and higher education institutions, to highlight the barriers created by academia’s current incentive structures.”

Those incentives, she says, “value the publication of the traditional research article in ‘impact factor’ journals over the research output and content formats that move us beyond the article.

“While other content formats are not new and have been used by researchers to complement the journal article or book chapter, it’s still not as common in the less well-funded social sciences. We need to do our part in re-imagining content forms that appeal to the next generation of learners as well as those outside of academia.”

. . . .

  • Three in five academics say they believe research is difficult to use outside of academia
  • Some 45 percent of academics questioned say they agree that research papers are too long and 57 percent say they feel that research summaries could help to more effectively present findings to decision-makers outside of academia
  • An impressive 64 percent of academics surveyed say they believe there needs to be greater focus on real world experiences and “bringing the outside world in” more to improve the learning experience from academic research
  • An equally impressive 64 percent of academics asked say they believe that content forms such as videos, podcasts, and infographics could help when presenting research

. . . .

It turns out that only 30 percent of students generally read a full research article, the new study tells us, and 32 percent of those students say they’d like to see some videos, podcasts, and/or infographics used in presenting research to them.

. . . .

When looked at by geographical region, researchers in North America seem to have been the most put out with how research is currently presented, 33 percent saying it’s “very difficult” and 47 percent saying it’s “difficult” to use outside of  academia. But nowhere was anyone very happy with how research is put forward, with fewer than one in five respondents saying they think that presentation of research material is “easy” or “very easy” to be used outside the academy.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG notes that what can be said about academic publishing in general also applies to academic publishing by legal scholars.

He doubts that traditional academic or scientific publishers are likely candidates to lead any sort of accessibility revolution. The reason is very simple – academic publishing is a very profitable business if you do it properly.

Large academic publishing conglomerates, Routledge, Springer, Elsevier, etc., etc. make very large sums of money from a wide range of obscure-sounding titles.

Here’s a list of some of Elsevier’s big-sellers:

  1. The Lancet
  2. The Cell
  3. Journal of the American College of Cardiology
  4. Biomaterials
  5. Neuroimage

The Lancet publishes dozens of journals, including:

  • The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology
  • The Lancet Digital Health
  • The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology
  • The Lancet Global Health
  • The Lancet Haematology
  • The Lancet Healthy Longevity
  • The Lancet HIV
  • The Lancet Infectious Diseases
  • The Lancet Microbe
  • The Lancet Healthy Longevity
  • The Lancet Neurology
  • The Lancet Oncology
  • The Lancet Planetary Health
  • The Lancet Psychiatry
  • The Lancet Public Health
  • The Lancet Respiratory Medicine

An annual subscription to The Lancet costs £181.00 GBP + applicable taxes.

An annual subscription to one of the sub-journals, The Lancet Infectious Diseases, costs £150.00 GBP + applicable taxes.

Academics and scientists provide their work to The Lancet at no charge. Indeed, there is quite a competition to be published in this and other publications because of the publish or perish mandate common to a great many institutions of higher learning and some learned professions.

The Lancet’s publications are, to the best of PG’s knowledge, all peer-reviewed which means that the most costly expert content review and resultant editing is, effectively free to the publisher.

PG suspects that The Lancet has some sort of computer cite-checking program to make certain that this element of its publications is without error. (Cite-checking/cite-correction programs have been common in the legal world for a very long time.)

All academic/scientific libraries will have to subscribe to Lancet publications almost regardless of price. Ditto for teaching hospitals.

PG suggests that publishing an academic/scientific journal is a very enjoyable and profitable venture once a publication is established (The first issue of The Lancet appearaed in 1823).

And The Lancet is hardly alone. There are dozens and dozens of similar publications.

2 thoughts on “Is Academic Research Too Hard To Read? The Academics Say Yes”

  1. Oh, but it’s actually more lucrative than you’ve already mentioned. Submission fees are hefty, often in the thousands of dollars, so they aren’t merely getting free content. They’re getting paid to consider each article submitted.

  2. Besides the problems of publishers, publisher or perish and lack of replication (many experiments can’t be replicated), I think the credentialist attitude of the “scientific community” is a big problem.

    Credentials are just a piece of paper; I suspect, however, that major academic scientists do not like the non-credentialed doing their own analysis and possibly disagreeing with them, especially as they try to push their politics with “research summaries could help to more effectively present findings to decision-makers outside of academia”.

    Finally, “social science” isn’t science.

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