Who are we writing our research for?

Senni Maatta
ESR at Queen’s University Belfast

Many universities around the world have started to understand that research should be accessible to wider audiences. Research cannot exist in its own bubble, separate from the rest of society. This realisation has resulted in open access requirements becoming a more common occurrence. Still, not enough is being done to the most impregnable barrier of them all – the language we use in our academic publications.

I cannot help but join the long list of names* to criticise academic language. Too often I see comments recommending researchers not to use words such as ‘I’, and to write in the passive tense instead, and to use complicated words to sound more authoritative, professional or academic. What frustrates me most is the impracticality of it.

I am an early stage researcher and a PhD student. Even with more than 6 years (and counting) of higher education in two countries, I often find academic text exhausting to read. Sentences which last for five rows are not uncommon, decorated with long words to emit authority. The work to get to the core of the text feels like a waste and, above all, irrational.

Distrust of science and rampant misinformation are significant problems in the world today. This has become evident and detrimental during the Covid-19 pandemic. As a prominent example, some of the misguided and dangerous guidance to treat the disease included the infamous advice to drink bleach… …it is also too common that research is referenced incorrectly. Scientific knowledge is no longer enough to validate courses of action. Misinformation in media and politics is unchecked. These issues are strongly linked to the language we use as researchers.  

So I ask, who is this complicated language benefitting? Researchers spend years perfecting their work, reading, collecting data, analysing and writing to produce publications. I for one, would like my research to reach as many people as possible, especially those whose life and work it is relevant to. Why would I use years to study my chosen topic if not to share the results of my work to all working in the field? We should make research dissemination as easy as possible for the people who it benefits most.

Perhaps the art of research lies in the ability to write about complicated issues in a simple and understandable way. Theory-laden and complex research is not easy to transform into simple, easy-to-read text. I am the first to confess that I am often guilty of this mistake. That is a point I want to focus on: it is a mistake and an unnecessary one at that, which we should all set as our goal to get rid of. I often think of how I could become a better at academic writing, but I will consciously avoid the idea of sounding academic, if it means the same as hard to understand.

As a conclusion, I want to highlight that it is a huge loss to the world that much of the brilliant and valuable research gets lost to the jargon, when it could be used by the wider society to benefit many. I think this is something all of us should keep in mind: Who are we writing our research for?

In MISTRAL, we believe that collaboration and engagement between those who create and those who use research is key to making research impactful. That principle has been built into the design of MISTRAL, partnerships with organisations from the field of renewable energy being integral part of the network. Some members of the MISTRAL network are also working on a piece of research on knowledge exchange to further improve this engagement, but you will soon hear more about that from us. 😉

*Some sources for criticism of Academic Writing:

Clayton, V. (2015). The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing: A new movement strives for simplicity. The Atlantic: Education. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/10/complex-academic-writing/412255/

Fullick, M. (2015). The politics of knowledge are made visible through simplistic critiques of academic writing. The London School of Economics and Political Science. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2015/02/25/the-politics-of-academic-style/

Pinker, S. (2013). Why Academics Stink at Writing. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1–10.

Rothman, J. (2014). Why is Academic Writing so Academic? New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/why-is-academic-writing-so-academic

MISTRAL symposium presentation

Alex Miller
ESR at Queen’s University Belfast

My colleague Robert Wade and I presented an overview of our draft paper “Size Matters: The Cultural Political Economy of Research and Innovation of Wind Energy” which we are co-authoring alongside researchers from the Technical University of Denmark (Tom Cronin, Julia Kirch Kirkegaard, and Cristian Pons-Seres de Brauwer). Presented at the MISTRAL Online Symposium hosted on the 13th and 14th of May 2020.

For more information about the MISTRAL symposium, please visit the MISTRAL project website

https://mistral-itn.eu/LatestNews/

Welcome to the MISTRAL blog!

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We’re very excited to bring you the MISTRAL project blog. MISTRAL (Multi-sectoral approaches to Innovative Skills Training for Renewable energy And sociaL acceptance) is an Innovative Training Network (ITN) funded by the Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (MSCA) to support 15 highly motivated Early Stage Researchers in their careers. MISTRAL will be active from January 1st 2019 to 31st December 2022.

This blog will bring you writing from ESRs about their work and experiences, project updates, and more!

Please also visit our website https://mistral-itn.eu/

MISTRAL has received funding as an Innovative Training Network from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (Grant Agreement No 813837).


Finland, Energy Transitions 2020 Conference and UEF

Senni Maatta, ESR at Queen’s University Belfast

Recently, I visited Finland, and was able to attend an energy conference and speak in a lecture in the University of Eastern Finland (UEF).

The Energy Transitions 2020 conference was organized by UEF, UEF Law School and the Centre for Climate Change, Energy and Environmental Law (CCEEL) in Joensuu, Finland 27-28.2.2020. I was able to attend this conference thanks to MISTRAL-ITN and MSCA, and got to enjoy many interesting viewpoints into energy transitions.

The participants of the conference had to endure some travel disruptions and problems due to ground maintenance workers strike at Helsinki-Vantaa airport. Due to the strikes, many flights were cancelled and late, and the baggage of many got delayed. This caused some of them to have no coat in Finnish -16 Celsius weather and just the clothes on their back! Many of the participants earned my admiration in how this did not stop them from participating in the conference.

Sotkamo, Finland (Picture: Senni Maatta)

Their endurance was not the only reason for my admiration. It was fascinating to hear about their research interests, such as different descriptions used in law and legislation for just transition, prosumers and vulnerable citizens and the role of the public in the low carbon transition. These topics were part of for example Viola Cappelli’s, Louis Sandiford’s and Romain Mauger’s talks. These topics piqued my interest, because names, concepts and definitions used can give light to underlying power dynamics. One of the key speaker’s, Benjamin Sovacool’s, speech was also of major interest to me. He talked about the acceleration of the low-carbon transition, temporality and previous energy transitions, and how the transition to low carbon economy requires interdisciplinary collaboration. I could not agree more on the need for interdisciplinarity, which is a central principle of MISTRAL.

The conference overall was a really pleasant experience, and the way the panel sessions were organized was especially successful in my opinion. Most of the conference consisted of panel sessions, and the sessions were ongoing simultaneously in multiple locations in small group sessions. The sessions where thematic, and the organization of the sessions into small groups made genuine discussions on the topics possible. I found out that this less formal way to organize conferences can be more useful to both participants and presenters themselves, even if less people get to hear the talks. I would love to see these kinds of panel sessions more often, as I felt like I was more engaged with the topics and speakers.

In addition to attending the conference, I also talked about research career to social sciences students in a lecture at UEF. As an UEF alumni, I was happy to return to the university to share my experiences after having finished my master’s degree only a year ago. I told the students about my experience so far in MISTRAL-ITN and of PhD studies at Queen’s University Belfast, highlighting how passion for research is in my opinion the most important requirement and driving force for being a researcher and enjoying it. That point in mind, my goal for the talk was to show the students an example of a researcher who is enthusiastic about her work.

Pielisjoki, Joensuu, Finland (Picture: Louis Sandiford)