Writing for Wider Audiences: Structural Challenges for Scholars

Institutional incentives (and barriers) are major reasons why more professors don’t try to bring their ideas to the public, Danielle Cooper and Christine Wolff-Eisenberg argue.

July 11, 2017
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When it comes to writing for wider audiences, what are the key challenges that scholars face? In these pages, Christopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost recently listed 10, ranging from academics’ lack of knowledge of the publishing world to their seemingly “jerky” attitudes.

While Schaberg and Bogost recognize that writing for nonacademic audiences “isn’t for everyone,” our ongoing research on the perceptions and activities of U.S. faculty highlights that, in reality, these activities are for hardly anyone. In order to address the challenges for scholars in writing for broader audiences, we must first recognize and contend with the major structural barriers that prevent scholars from doing so.

Results from our national studies of faculty members in the U.S., which have been fielded on a triennial basis since 2000, provide strong evidence that traditional scholarly incentives continue to motivate behavior around research dissemination. Faculty members are most interested in reaching scholars within their own field of research with their research outputs, and generally maintain that more recognition should be awarded for traditional research publications, such as journal articles and books, as compared to research products, such as blog posts, data, images and media.

In our most recent cycle of the U.S. Faculty Survey, only 40 percent of faculty member respondents identified the general public as a very important audience for their research, and even fewer (38 percent) view reaching undergraduate students as highly important.

Given the audiences that scholars rate with the highest importance, it is perhaps unsurprising that when choosing a scholarly journal in which to publish an article, scholars most value the area of coverage of the journal in relation to their immediate area of research, the reach of the journal’s circulation within their field and the impact factor and reputation of the journal.

Consistent with findings from previous cycles of the survey, much smaller shares of faculty members rated as highly important the journal making its articles freely available (e.g., there is no cost to purchase or read the article). And only 52 percent of scholars agreed that societal impact, defined as the benefit of scholarly work and research products to society, should be a key measure of research performance for tenure, promotion and funding proposals.

These themes cut across diverse disciplines. Our recent in-depth qualitative research on the research support needs of agriculture scholars found that scholars generally perceive their research, and agriculture research more broadly, as having great value to society. The disconnect between agriculture research and public awareness was also identified by many scholars as a grand challenge for the field and society at large.

However, many display ambivalence as to whether it is their role to communicate that value. Our recent study on religious studies scholars also found that even among the relatively small group of scholars who publish beyond the academy, such efforts are perceived as secondary to or in conflict with scholarly publishing practices due to how publishing is evaluated for hiring, tenure and promotion.

Structural barriers play a central role in preventing writing for wider audiences from becoming a more established component of academic work. Schaberg and Bogost recognize this implicitly, not only by highlighting gaps in academic training in their list of challenges, but also through their outreach work, which is creating important opportunities for scholars to communicate their work more widely and develop the skills to do so.

Yet, until colleges and universities systematically recognize the value of these forms of communication and reward their scholars accordingly, the balance of reaching a wider audience without compromising their lives as disciplinary researchers will remain elusive.


Danielle Cooper is a senior researcher and Christine Wolff-Eisenberg is the survey coordinator at Ithaka S+R.

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