On academic writing.

I’ve heard the saying that the only people that will read your thesis are your advisor and your mom. While I love my mom and really respect my advisor, this just doesn’t do it for me. I, like many academics, want my work to be read.

Whenever I get frustrated with something I try to do a bit of research on it to pinpoint why it’s bothering me. It also helps me think about how I can address my frustration so that I’m not just stewing. In my review, I saw a trend: academic writing seems to be inaccessible.

First, there’s the actual restriction on academic articles, paywalls. With a paywall, an academic journal can refuse to show you an article unless you have a subscription, or pay by the article. For example here’s an article about videogames and neuroscience that I wanted to read:

Only 51$ for 24 hours!
Only 51$ for 24 hours!

For a broke college student, this is a lot of money. Especially if you’re doing a lit review which would require several sources. All is not lost, though, because most universities give free access for their students. Unfortunately, not everyone is a student. Actually, only 39% of 18 to 24 year-olds are in college (and that’s across all disciplines). Point being, the majority of the population needs to pay a lot of money to stay up to date with research… and that’s not happening.

Even if you manage to get ahold of an academic article, there seems to be an art to deciphering them. A quick google search of academic writing, and bad academic writing, reveals tons of people complaining about the language and style used in academic articles.

academic writing 2

academic writing 1

It’s not that academics CAN’T write, but that most feel pressure to write in academise. I’m currently reading a book titled “Writing for the social sciences” and have found it immensely helpful (link at the bottom). The advice given in this book is to write plainly, and to make your writing accessible. The problem is it generally doesn’t sound smart, and, as shallow as this seems, people may not hold it in high regard.

Look at that! It sounds so smart! I think.

It’s no wonder that wikipedia is so popular. It addresses both of these issues. It’s accessible, and it’s readable (for the most part). Still worried about errors in an editable encyclopedia? you might want to take a look at this Nature article.

So, how can we address this issue? That’s a difficult question, I have some theories but they may only work for myself. While I was at Stanford I noticed that almost every assignment was accompanied with some sort of presentation or media. Most stanford classes urged their students to create some product that people could actually use when conducting research. I’ve gathered a few examples of what this means.

Have an elevator pitch.
You’ve probably heard of this concept, but if you haven’t you should be familiar with it. An elevator pitch is “is a short summary used to quickly and simply define a person, profession, product, service, organization or event and its value proposition.” In other words, pretend you’re in an elevator and have to describe your work before the person you’re talking to gets off. I know this is hard to do you’ve probably spent YEARS working on your project and summarizing this is intimidating. But, I have seen several researchers scare off potential audiences because they don’t have a concise answer to the question “What do you do?” Plus, you can use this pitch at family get togethers.

Don’t say, show.
Vsauce is making some of the coolest science videos on the internet right now. Take a moment to check out this video. Did you notice how many views that video has? At this moment… 1,776,571. The video cuts to the cool part of the study, gives a short synopsis, and provides a link to the actual paper. That’s freaking cool. It’s like a movie trailer for a research study. Now, I’m not saying you should have production values on par with this video, but, if you want viewers, it doesn’t hurt to polish it a bit.

Have some sort of presence on the internet.
Having an online presence helps to get your work out there and makes it more visible. Some of the coolest interactions that I’ve had come out of tweets and blog posts I’ve written. It does require some upkeep, but keep in mind you’re a few keystrokes from sharing your ideas with others.

If you want more people to read your work, I suggest you try out some of these methods and reflect on how you learn about new studies outside of journal articles.