Making Our Ideas More Accessible

May 11, 2012

As a sociology graduate student, I sometimes feel like Simmel’s “stranger,” close enough to academia to observe, but distant enough to retain an outside perspective. Like many graduate students staring down a possible academic career-path, I’m a bit terrified at the elephant in the room: Is what academics do really important? Are they relevant? Does it matter?

Who reads a sociology journal? As my former theory teacher Chet Meeks once posed to my first social theory course, how many people look to sociology journals to learn anything about anything? While the occasional sociologist is quoted in The New York Times or appears on CNN, the influence these experts have is vanishingly small. I do not know as much about other disciplines, but my sense is that for most of the social sciences and humanities, expert knowledge is largely going to waste.

To echo folks like Steven Sideman or danah boyd, we have an obligation to change this; academics have a responsibility to make their work relevant for the society they exist within.

The good news is that the tools to counter this deficiency in academic relevance are here for the taking. Now we need the culture of academia to catch up. Simply, to become more relevant, academics need to make their ideas more accessible.

There are two different, yet equally important, ways academics need to make their ideas accessible:

(1) Accessible by availability: ideas should not be locked behind paywalls.

(2) Accessible by design: ideas should be expressed in ways that are interesting, readable and engaging.

To become publicly relevant, academics must make their ideas available to and articulated for the public.

I. Accessible by Availability

PJ Rey argued that journals and their articles are the “dinosaurs” of academia because “they wield enormous (and terrifying) power, yet they are ill-adapted to function in a changing environment.” Print, and even digital, articles are said to be vestigial organs of a different time.

However, I do think journal articles have a continuing and important role in intellectual discussions today and moving forward (a point Patricia Hill-Collins also made in reply to PJ’s pieceand one PJ agrees with). Not vestigial organs, journals remind me more of the process of exaptation, referring to the evolutionary process where something evolves in one environment for one purpose but comes to take on a new purpose in a different environment (feathers are the classic example of this co-optation). The 5,000 to 10,000-word, well researched, rigorously argued, highly edited, peer-reviewed and jargon-heavy format continues to have its place. Highly technical arguments need hashing out.

Even intellectual discussions that have no larger pragmatic purpose should be embraced for their own sake (in that same way we embrace art or sports). That “mental masturbation” is used as a pejorative has always confused me. And understandings that are best achieved in the article format can be later translated into other formats (blogging, tweeting, giving talks and so on).

However, the academic journal system as it currently exists is fundamentally broken. Most prestigious journals are “closed,” locking articles down behind paywalls. This is one reason for academic irrelevancy.

One of the reasons academic journals are closed is the expensive cost associated with print publishing. Typesetting, printing, binding and whatever else goes into making the print journal that is then shipped across the globe (using gasoline!) once made sense. These once were necessary costs to disseminate information widely. The Web radically changes the economy of information dissemination. Journals with all the same rigorous peer-review and editorial standards can exist online at a fraction of the cost of print journals without letting articles wilt away behind paywalls. Yesterday, print journals were created to facilitate the spread of information; today, the continued existence of print journals comes at a cost to the spread of information.

Printing, of course, is only part of the cost involved with maintaining a journal. Editorial work (both in managing the various authors as well as the articles themselves), web-server space, and web design and maintenance are all expensive. However, as many current open-access journals have proven, these costs can be mitigated while keeping articles free to access.

Here’s an idea: if university libraries paid for every penny it would take to run the current crop of prestigious journals across all disciplines as Web-only-open-access and stopped buying them from publishers, those libraries would save a massive amount of money and all the articles could be available to all. This would save taxpayer and undergrad-tuition dollars and make academic research more available and therefore more relevant. Even if it would cost $100,000 a year to operate, say, the American Journal of Sociology as web-only and open-access, this could be paid for with a tiny fraction of the money libraries are collectively paying the The University of Chicago Press for this journal now.

But this is only half of the availability fight. While top-tier journals should be made open access, open-access journals should also be made top-tier. Danah boyd wrote a terrific post covering much of this ground back in 2008, asking academics to boycott closed journals. She has also curated a good list of open-access publications. To second her call, academics need to prioritize reviewing for, citing from and publishing in open-access journals. Academics in positions of power need to consider intellectual availability in hiring and tenure decisions. Did this particular candidate attempt to make their ideas available for the public or did they participate in locking their ideas behind paywalls? Those in hiring and tenure positions should be demanding justification for why any particular candidate made their ideas and research inaccessible.

II. Accessible by Design

I can get everything I wished for above – i.e., a world where articles that are available free to everyone that have not been printed and shipped are considered as legitimate by academics in power – and this would only be one small, but important, step in expanded public relevance for academics. The other half of the battle is for academics to express their insights, data and solutions in ways that are accessible.

The Internet disrupts the music, film, news, porn and other industries because there is high demand for the content. If I snapped my fingers and the American Journal of Sociology was completely open-access there probably would not be a massive rush of people scrambling to start downloading articles. As a fan of thinkers like Adorno or Hofstadter, I should confess that my first reaction is to scoff at the anti-intellectual nature of mass culture. But that would be shortsighted; there is popular demand for cutting-edge ideas, new data and smart solutions. But academics have, by and large, done a poor job expressing themselves to the public.

As I said above, there should be space for highly intellectual, jargon-heavy debates where interested parties can have fun nerding out over some super-technical detail of an obscure theory. However, academic conversations usually revolve around issues of larger importance (as obscure as they sometimes sound). Thus, research should (also) be written in a way the public wants to consume it.

Journal articles, especially those in open-access publications, can be written in a way that those outside of one’s discipline can understand. This is especially crucial if one wants journalists to report on the findings. Perhaps more importantly, academics need to think beyond the journal article: blogging, tweeting, and writing in newspapers, newsmagazines, news websites, etc. all allow academics to reach larger publics.

And, of course, writing for larger public outlets means writing differently than academics are often trained to do.

I understand that not all academics may have the skills to write their research in a way that is interesting to the public in general. It is sad that this skill is not included in academic training. Making complicated topics, ideas and research easy to understand and engaging is an undervalued and difficult task. Here, perhaps we can lean on journalists. Recruit them to cover your work. Most of them value and have learned to communicate to the wider public.

Another idea: What if all graduate programs had a course teaching students to write for larger publics?

 *********

To conclude, academics have a responsibility to make sure their insights, research and solutions are publicly relevant. And the current irrelevancy crisis academia is suffering is not just the fault of an anti-intellectual public but also because academic work is simply not accessible. It’s not accessible because the work is not available when locked behind excessive paywalls, and it is not accessible because few would want to read the work even if it were free.

Thus, the attack is two-pronged: (1) accessibility by availability: we have to make top-tier journals open-access and open-access journals top-tier; (2) accessibility by design: write research in blogs, tweets, open-access journals, op-eds, whatever, in ways that are readable, understandable, fun and relevant to larger publics.

Bio

Nathan Jurgenson is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Maryland; he can be reached via Twitter: @nathanjurgenson. This is an edited version of an essay previously posted on the Cyborgology blog.

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