DeWitt Scott is a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership at Chicago State University. You can follow him on Twitter at @dscotthighered.
Obtaining success and recognition in the halls of academia rests largely upon one’s ability to publish rigorous scholarship in scholarly journals. As graduate students, this concept is shoved down our throats almost daily. We are told that publications are what get you hired, promoted, and tenured. Those that publish the most in the highest regarded journals are usually considered leaders in their field and the top thinkers of their time.
While scholarly publications are very valuable and necessary, the impact they have outside of the academy is questionable. These journals tend to sit on library shelves or in the digital repositories of America’s academic institutions, rarely read by the average citizen, or even the average academic for that matter. Much of the research housed in these journals examines the ways in which life can be enhanced through the acceptance of new knowledge. The only problem is that this new knowledge is rarely accessed, read, or understood by those who need it most. If a person does not have access to an academic library, they may never come across this scholarship. Even worse, those outside of the academy that may happen upon a journal or scholarly article may have difficulty comprehending the material because of the technical jargon that normally makes complex ideas and thoughts even more complicated and indigestible.
As graduate students and thinkers-in-training, we owe it to society to find ways for our work to reach broader publics. One way to do this is to engage in op-ed writing. Scholars and graduate students investigate some of the most urgent issues in society. Addressing these issues in op-ed pieces can have numerous benefits, a few of which are listed below:
1. Op-eds force you to be succinct.
Through op-ed writing we are forced to be more succinct with our thoughts and ideas than we are allowed in journal articles. Being concise with our arguments, thoughts, and claims is a necessary skill for becoming a prolific academic. We are also compelled to reduce the complexity of our concepts and shun the convoluted language that we have become so used to producing in our academic work. Op-ed writing challenges us to produce interesting, readable work that can be circulated in a short amount of time, thus increasing the impact that work can have.
2. Op-eds allow you to address issues in “real time.”
Publishing research papers in scholarly journals is normally a pretty lengthy process. The method of peer-review, along with revise and resubmit, can take upwards of two years, depending on the journal. Traditionally, two years has never appeared to be a particularly long time, but in today’s times when information travels faster than ever before, two years has become practically an eternity. There is so much that can take place and be discovered in the time between writing about an issue and its final appearance in a scholarly journal. Op-ed writing allows academics to get their thoughts about a particular issue to readers with little delay. Want to openly criticize the current president of the United States for what you feel he has or has not done for the nation? Do it here. Want to predict what future generations will find appalling about our current way of thinking? Write about it here. You can even criticize fellow intellectuals for what you believe is a failure to do their jobs effectively. All of these topics can move from the point of conception to op-ed print in a matter of days, allowing analysis of a subject to connect with an audience while it is still immediately relevant to everyday experience.
3. Access to a wider audience.
I’m sure there are a number of intellectuals out there who are just waiting for the release of the latest volume of the Journal of Cellular Physiology in hopes of discovering the most recent knowledge in stem cell research. Despite these inquisitive academics, there are a number of people in society that can benefit tremendously from information related to stem cell research who will never have access to, or interest in, such a journal. Scholars can take their findings and ideas that have been published in peer-review journals and make them available to wider audiences through op-ed pieces. Such accessibility can potentially have a greater effect on a larger number of people than the average scholarly journal.
4. The comments section can be particularly insightful (or insane).
Op-ed writing provides readers an opportunity to respond instantly to the ideas discussed in the article, usually through a comments section at the bottom of the page. Depending on the level of tact displayed by commenters, the comments section can either be very helpful for the author or meaningless altogether. There are some articles in which fruitful discussion takes place within the comments section. On the contrary, there are times when individuals who are clearly unhappy with their jobs, lives, pay, etc. make ridiculous and disparaging comments that serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever. If you are fortunate enough to receive comments that provide constructive feedback, take heed and consider what is said. Constructive feedback is normally provided in the scholarly publication process. The difference here is that op-eds allow you to engage all commenters and clarify points that readers don’t understand. In the scholarly publication process, addressing feedback usually takes months and normally consists of you doing whatever the reviewers tell you to do in order to be published.
I am in no way suggesting that scholarly publications are unimportant or unnecessary. It is absolutely clear that if you want to obtain or retain a tenure-track position you must publish scholarly articles. No institution will pay you or fund your research because you have hundreds of op-ed articles on your C.V. Peer-review and expert critique are particularly critical for the sciences and should not be ignored. My aim here is to stress that if we are truly concerned with exposing the public to the deep thinking and reflection that we do for a living, op-eds are an option that we need to exploit more often. We need to consider ways in which we can write for the people in our discipline as well as those who may not have terminal degrees or access to fancy libraries. It is a disservice to society for our best thinkers to have their ideas shelved away where no one will see them. We must find ways to get those ideas in the hands of everyday people.
What are some of your thoughts on op-ed writing? What are some ways that we can make scholarly publications more relevant to everyday people?
[Image by Flickr and used under Creative Commons Licensing.]
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