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Here’s Why Academics Should Write for the Public

By: , Posted on: December 10, 2015

professors public
Should professors engage with the lay public? Illinois Springfield, CC BY-NC-ND

There’s been much discussion about the needless complexity of academic writing.

In a widely read article in The Chronicle of Higher Education last year, Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard and author of several acclaimed books including The Sense of Style, analyzed why academic writing is “turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand.”

More recently, Jeff Camhi, professor emeritus of biology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, discovered how much academic authors struggle when trying to write for a lay audience. He suggested writing programs should “develop a night course in creative nonfiction writing, specifically for professors.”

We think learning to write creative nonfiction isn’t a bad idea. But we disagree with Camhi’s suggestion that academics need a night course for this. We propose something simpler: academics just need to start writing, getting edited and seeing if the public reads them. Through this process, academics will not only learn to express themselves clearly, but most likely become better scientists as well.

What are the benefits?

Although both of us currently write for the public, we come at this from different perspectives – one of us has written for a few years, and the other started writing only this year.

We don’t think we are amazing writers, but we do think writing for the public has helped us improve. The immediate feedback from editors and the public has helped make our writing clearer.

We’ve learned that if we’re not clear and engaging, then editors and the general public simply won’t read us. And that continues to teach us how to improve the next time we write.

Public writing has also improved both our academic writing skills and scientific thinking abilities.

That’s because the first step in improving academic writing is to learn to reduce the jargon academics use and express concepts clearly. And this has forced us to distill our thinking to its absolute core.

Consequently, not only did the process improve the quality of our writing, but it also brought more clarity to the way we were thinking about our scientific problems.

For example, when we recently started to write an academic review article together, we first considered how we could write a piece for the public later based on the review. This helped us reconfigure the way we synthesized the literature, forcing us to discuss it clearly and logically.

Additionally, because public writing engages both the public and our academic colleagues, we’ve found that public commentary can be a form of “public peer review.” Exciting research ideas for academic papers have developed from our public pieces thanks to crowdsourced feedback.

For example, a Psychology Today magazine article written by one of us (Wai) led to feedback from editors and others on the importance of studying highly educated influential people. This resulted in a series of research papers, discussed subsequently in The Washington Post.

Public engagement brings benefits for an academic career. Cas, CC BY-SA

Such public engagement can bring in other benefits for an academic career. For instance, one of us (Miller) traveled to Amsterdam last month to give a keynote address at a conference about gender and science.

The conference organizers found him because of the attention he received in popular press about an international study that he had led on gender stereotypes in science. That popular press attention was initiated by the author contacting his university’s press office and working closely with its writers to collaboratively draft a press release.

In both our cases, public engagement opened up opportunities to network with academics and others within and outside our fields. And this happened only because people read the public pieces we had written.

It’s that simple

Writing for the public requires improving one’s skills, just the way it does for writing an academic article or a grant proposal. Yes, there is a “start-up cost” as you learn the ropes. But it isn’t as time-consuming as many academics may think.

In fact, both of us were very cautious when we first started to write for the public. We were even skeptical of its benefits given the perceived time cost. But earlier this year, one of us (Miller) learned how easy this process is.

He learned about a controversial study that he wanted to place in a broader context for the public. So he submitted a 199-word pitch that night to The Conversation, which encourages academics to write for the public. An editor replied the next morning giving advice on how to structure and write the piece for clarity.

The 765-word article took just one day to draft and one day to refine with the editor – lightning fast compared to academic journals. The Atlantic’s Quartz republished the article, which has now reached over 25,000 readers. Consider how most academic articles are read by only a handful of people.

We now believe that public writing is part and parcel of our identities as scholars.

Engage with the public to have social impact

Now that we’ve discussed some of the benefits of public writing and why we think academics should do it, we conclude by addressing one important structural component to the solution.

The president of the University of California, Janet Napolitano, recently argued that more scientists are needed in the public square to communicate the importance of science. We couldn’t agree more.

But what she did not mention is that more scientists are needed in the public square to become clearer and better writers as well. As we said earlier, that clarity can bring other indirect and direct benefits for science and scientists’ careers.

So why aren’t more academics writing for the public?

Well, it’s really quite simple. There’s little incentive built into the reward and promotion system, something Steven Pinker noted as well. Perhaps administrators need to include public engagement on equal footing as teaching, advising, publishing, and grant-getting in the tenure review process.

Many academics, including us, now realize that if we want to reach people who might benefit from our research, we have to step out of the ivory tower. We academics need to enter the discussion that the rest of the world engages in every day.

Author Jonathan Wai is Research Scientist at Duke University, and author David Miller is Doctoral Student in Psychology, Northwestern University. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.  See original article here.

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  • Mark Hom

    Great article! I couldn’t agree with you more! I am an Elsevier author but I wrote my “Science of Fitness” book at a high school biology level with legendary cyclist Greg LeMond. In the process of researching the book I had to read some horrendously written books and scientific articles. Like you say, brilliant scientists can be terrible writers. Our book was rated 5 out of 5 stars and a perfect 100 points by Doody’s Review Service. Only 8% of Doody’s reviews get 5 stars and far fewer score 100.

    I am now writing for technology news web site Memeburn.com and my scientific articles are wildly popular with their layperson readership (which can be geeky, but is not overtly scientific like this web site). http://memeburn.com/author/markhom/

    My Elsevier editor liked the articles so much that she suggested that I submit them here on SciTech Connect. Because I wrote them to be clear and understandable to laypeople, the articles only required minor changes to make them popular with the PhD experts here. http://preprod-scitec.liveperformancesales.com/author/mark-hom/

    My advice to other scientific writers is to try writing outside of your own sub-specialized field. That way you will not overuse your occupation’s technical jargon, you will stretch your knowledge limits to learn as you write, you will have more of an open mind about the subject, and you will learn to explain things to your inner self which helps teaching others.

    For example, I am a radiologist MD but I prefer to write about mitochondrial biology, exercise physiology, sports nutrition, aging, evolution, public health and disease prevention, quantum physics, science fiction errors, computer history, digital art creation, art history, neuroscience, Albert Einstein, space travel, Stanley Kubrick, relativity, and publishing (to name just a few). I have lectured before US Congress in Washington DC at the request of the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation (UMDF.org) and I have written an online article at the request of the United Nations (UNESCO International Year of Light).

    My only critique is that your best work is an article written by female scientist promoting females in science. You have not really stretched your limits yet.

    • Holly Frost

      I enjoy your writing.

  • Holly Frost

    The competitive environment of academia demands writers prove themselves untouchable and beyond reproach. As a consequence, alienating the reader is a necessity. If the reader cannot understand you, let them feel it is because of their ignorance and other deficiencies.

    Think back to “The Emperor Who Wore No Clothes.” No one, with the exception of a little boy, wanted to admit they saw no clothes because it would prove their deficiencies.

    The basis for communication is understanding. When an idea matters, clarity is vital. Drawing the reader in, close to you, allowing them to feel engaged and perked up to what you are sharing matters. Writing is an opportunity to invigorate others’ minds.

    When you see it that way, it becomes a gift you are presenting. A reader won’t feel it’s a gift when their head gets thumped by stale toast you’ve tossed out in dry words. They don’t want your title to seem like an inviting chalice, and then find the fine wine they expected is actually dust, sand and cobwebs. So, make your writing a gift that you would want to receive.

  • Matteo Cantiello

    This is a great piece. It’s indeed ironic and somewhat frightening that the discoveries and recommendations for which society invests substantial economic and human capital, are not directly disseminated by the people who really understand them. Guidelines for a possible modus operandi, “Publicly Friendly Open Science”, are discussed here: http://www.authorea.com/50890

  • Donna deWeerd-Wilson

    Writing for a lay audience does not come easily. We’ve developed an interactive course on Elsevier’s Publishing Campus which provides useful tips on how to write lay summaries http://bit.ly/1XRPGHh

  • It’s also worth considering Wikipedia. Everyone, scientist and layman alike, consults it, and for a lot of people, research simply doesn’t exist unless it’s referenced and contextualized in a well-written WP entry.

  • Halimat Salako

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