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