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August 11, 2022+Steven Zhou
+Research & Publishing+Academic Careers+STEM

Three Roadblocks in Academia That Limit Science Communication

Society is increasingly questioning the usefulness of academia and higher education. Academia is supposed to be the hallmark of knowledge generation and dissemination. Yet too often, the research articles it publishes fail to be practical and applicable for those beyond academy walls.

As an example, my field of organizational psychology purports to study how people think and behave at work, with a focus on identifying policies and practices that can lead to better leadership, better teamwork, and better treatment of employees. Despite the seeming practicality of these topics, our field continues to wrestle with the “scientist-practitioner gap,” where the ideas and interventions developed in academic research are rarely ever used in actual business practice. Take leadership, for example — despite thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles on leadership, most leadership resources used by managers still tend to be popular press self-help books that aren’t always based on academic research.

To be truly impactful and applicable to our students, academia needs to bridge the gap between scientific research and the people it is meant to help. This support can take many forms: advocacy with public policy officials (see the Consortium of Social Science Associations [COSSA]), visualizing data and research findings for popular audiences (see the Society for the Teaching of Psychology International Poster Conference), and writing or speaking for popular press news outlets (see ComSciCon and Psychgeist Media). The recent growth of these organizations and opportunities are just some examples of academics’ increasing interest in activities and organizations that help bridge the communication gap between academic research and what the public reads and is exposed to.

However, science communication is limited by elements of the academic infrastructure — that is, the structures, systems, and incentives that scholars and faculty work within. I present these limitations below in the form of three roadblocks that we should remove before the gap between academia and practice widens further: publishing expectations, cultures of defense, and orthodox writing styles. Ideally, the end goal would be to rebuild a culture that promotes valuable and practically useful research in higher education.

Roadblock #1: Publish — But Only in the Right Outlets

Simply put, science communication is rarely rewarded in academic career evaluations. At both the initial hiring stage for a new assistant professor and the tenure review stage for promotion to associate or full professor, faculty are evaluated almost entirely on their teaching and/or research. Especially at top research institutions, the strongest emphasis is placed on research and total number of peer-reviewed journal publications. Regardless of performance elsewhere, a lack of research publications in top-ranked journals often bars faculty from promotion or tenure.

To clarify, “top-tier journals” do not include popular press publications in renowned outlets like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Faculty are often evaluated based solely on their “h-index,” which tracks how many peer-reviewed journal articles they have published and how many citations each of their articles has received. Some institutions go so far as to consider only publications in a specific list of top-tier journals when creating this index; all other publications (including those in lower-tier peer-reviewed journals and in popular presses) are ignored, valued less, or not even set up to track.

This pressure to publish in specific journals works against the time it takes to do the work of “translating” scientific research to the public. It takes time to write a popular press piece, prepare a presentation to a public audience, and meet with legislators to advocate for research-based policies. All this activity takes away from time that could be spent on publishing in traditional peer-reviewed journals.

As research scientist Nicole Barbaro has pointed out, the infrastructure of publishing pressure — and how publishing is defined — is one of the strongest influences on shaping how knowledge is produced. I’ve reflected in several prior pieces on how the publish-or-perish peer-reviewed journal system has led to many perverse incentives that have diluted the quality of most academic journals. One of the first steps to encouraging science communication would be to fix this incentive structure and ensure that science communication is included and rewarded when faculty are evaluated for hiring, tenure, or promotion.

Roadblock #2: You Are Always Wrong and Will Be Told So (Bluntly)

In statistical testing, one of the first things students learn is to never write “my study proves X” — instead, they write “my study suggests X” or “my study finds evidence that supports X.” This hedging is designed to protect the writer. Even the best research study is unlikely to conclusively prove something is true without limitations, and even the strongest evidence of an effect might be applicable to only a specific group of people, in a specific context, or for a specific purpose.

This practice of hedging is popular in academic writing. In a 6,000-15,000-word research paper, writers have the time to dive into these nuances and explain the caveats to their findings. Yet in a 600-800-word popular press piece, there is simply no space or time to articulate all the nuances, caveats, and limitations. Readers of popular presses want to hear strong, succinct takeaway messages. Persuasive and memorable communication leaves little room for hedging.

In that sense, science communication always leaves the door open to be “wrong,” since there is little space to hedge and defend. This makes it quite dangerous to engage in science communication — one must carefully consider which limitations are vital to include, and which can be left out. Leaving out vitally important limitations can lead to misrepresentation and controversy, while including less important limitations can lead to public distrust in science or general confusion.

Moreover, peers who are less familiar with the space and time limitations of science communication might react negatively to the lack of hedging. Personally, I experienced this when I published a piece in a business magazine criticizing the use of popular personality tests (e.g., Myers-Briggs). One renowned scholar in our field thought that my statements on alternative tests did not explain their limitations enough — despite the focus of the piece on why existing tests are inadequate (which the scholar agreed with). Instead of contacting me directly, he posted on social media, emailed other faculty members, and emailed the magazine editor with his critiques.

Thankfully the editor contacted me directly, and I was able to explain and properly justify my arguments in a lengthy email response, in addition to making small edits to the article in response to some of the scholar’s feedback. Not everyone gets this opportunity to justify their arguments in an offline email response though.

Science communication, especially in public writing, will always leave a door open for critique, perhaps even in the form of harsh or public attacks. Until academia changes its culture to understand, if not embrace, the conciseness and lack of hedging required for public writing, this will likely continue to deter people from publicly sharing their research and ideas.

Roadblock #3: Formulaic Writing Doesn’t Attract Readers

When I was in my master’s program, I had to write a short paper following Chicago-style guidelines to the letter. I did poorly on the first try. These guidelines (Chicago, APA, MLA, and others) are extremely detailed and often dictate the exact language, phrasing, and syntax required for academic papers. Beyond these guidelines, many science-based academic fields follow formulaic structures for journal articles. In my field of psychology, this means a 150-word abstract, an introduction that “motivates” the study, a literature review that summarizes prior research and justifies one’s hypotheses or research questions, a methods section, a results section, and then finally a discussion and conclusion.

Such structured writing helps get a paper swiftly understood and published in an academic journal. But it is less helpful when attracting readers from the general public, who are likely less willing to dig into this dense format.

Unlike the formulaic structure of journal articles, public writing must be more creative. Instead of starting with a literature review (justification) leading to the conclusion (takeaway), public writing usually starts with the takeaway message before providing the justification. Instead of long sentences, strings of prepositional phrases, and laundry lists of in-text citations, public writing emphasizes succinct communication, evocative language and analogies, and “tweet-able” phrases.

The audience is different as well. Readers of a peer-reviewed journal are usually well-informed experts on a topic already employed in academia. Public writing means persuading a nonspecialist and nonexpert audience, which can be exceptionally difficult with complex topics. As a specialist in data analytics and statistics, I’ve written before on just how challenging it is to explain statistical results to nonstatistical audiences.

The audience also expects swifter and more responsive articles. Traditional journal publishing takes months, if not years. An article published five years ago is considered “recent findings” in many fields of study. Popular press articles are written and published in days, and sometimes even hours, and articles older than a couple of years are often tagged as “outdated” by news outlets.

Researchers are trained to follow traditional journal publishing timelines, not to follow the blitz and chaos of the news cycle. It’s like making a turtle run like a rabbit in a race. In order for the slow-moving turtle — academia — to truly embrace and encourage science communication, it must learn to pick up the pace and encourage faster responses, adherence to immediate deadlines, and a willingness to prioritize “getting it done” over “reaching perfection.”

A Vision for the Future

Ultimately, these roadblocks come down to changing policy (such as tenure and promotion expectations), shifting culture (such as perfectionism and slow pacing), and improving graduate training to incorporate science communication. These are not easy tasks, and some roadblocks will take years to dismantle.

But if we truly believe that the research being conducted in higher education is uniquely valuable above and beyond other sources of knowledge, then we must engage in science communication. We must learn and incentivize the practice of translating complex findings into actionable takeaways that the public can understand.

Here’s a lofty vision for the future:

  • Graduate students are trained to write for both academic and public audiences.
  • We have a system or database that tracks and rewards faculty for publishing in popular press outlets and generating citations or reads.
  • We learn to partner effectively with journalists, legislators, and others who can help us take our science to the public, and we reward academics who spend their time doing this.
  • As more academics get involved in science communication, the culture shifts to embrace uncertainty and faster pacing.

For now, the roadblocks still exist, so it’s double the work for those of us trying to keep up with both academic expectations and science communication. However, change happens slowly over time, through growing momentum from a growing coalition of like-minded individuals. As higher education continues to battle tremendous challenges, it is crucial that academics find better ways to express the value of our work to the society in which we work.


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