Translating Research Beyond Academic Journals — Potential Wins and Pitfalls

Since I left TED and returned to Grad school, I have been navigating the world of research writing and regularly asking “who is the audience here?” I care very deeply about making research accessible to a wide audience, not just other academics. I remember grimacing my way through some TEDtalks, cringing when statements were made with too much certainty or an exaggerated finding. But I also find myself grimacing through lectures that run for hours without clear definition. Writing for a book or an article is a very different practice than writing for video or radio. Since media has taken may different forms, media literacy — and expectations — need to be clearer. So, how do we approach all the cool tools that exist in our Media ecosystem?

For precision and peer review, academic journals are unparalleled. It is easy to follow conversations between them and see where someone was coming from because there is a clear code of conduct with citations. Debates are also public, so when something is uncertain, there will likely be notes nearby. The community is good about critiquing work and bringing to light inconsistencies. That said, academic journals are inaccessible to most people (paywalls) and so full of dense, clunky writing that requires training to unpack successfully that it cannot reach some of the communities who need it the most. There are some debates where nothing seems certain and selecting a direction forward seems difficult and dangerous. But these are the best places to go for truly in-depth research and understanding its limits. These articles require a lot of time and attention to unpack.

Nonfiction, wider audience books try to turn this clunkier writing into a format for a wider audience who is still excited to read 350 pages on a specific topic. Editors will shape stories with the researchers to help the book “flow” a little better, and some of the precision is lost in the sculpting of the story line. Books are not always fact checked, though books written in an academic press/setting may be subjected to similar peer pressures for rigorous methods that academics writing for journals may experience. Non-fiction books are written by academics but also by journalists and other writers who may have different or more limited training. The best way to gauge what kind of writing it is is to read about the author and consider some of their previous work. These books require commitment and attention to reading. It is also to important who the author is and what claims they make about their research methods in the book: what is disclosed? What is omitted?

Daily Newspaper articles — This media is produced more quickly than books and peer reviewed journal articles and has a different goal for its readers. These are shorter articles — geared towards informing busy people who are unlikely to interact with the nuts and bolts of the research behind the story. They want to know how it will affect them and they want the writing to be clear and quickly digestible. How you design sentences and storylines matter. This means skimming off another layer of precision. This is not necessarily a bad thing — quick exposure to many topics allows for individuals to be better informed about all the diverse activity taking place in research. But the limits of the research may be more difficult to understand immediately. “It kind of works sometimes” doesn’t really sell stories. It means you should continue digging, asking what the sources are, and following stories over time before determining what is “true.”

Radio and Video — Writing for Radio and Video presents different challenges. Listeners cannot easily go back and make a section go really slowly so they can comprehend it. Especially if it’s live. Sometimes you can pause it and replay it, but the ideal is to explain something with enough clarity and the right pacing that keeps the audience interested before they get bored. If radio/video speakers spoke the Methods Section of a peer reviewed paper aloud, the majority of their audience would tune out. Both are faster paced and require some elements of drama to make their elements engaging in ways that academic papers may not need to. Does it shave off some precision? Yes. But what is the goal with these elements? For a TED Talk, it is to present a window into a new world of research that may have previously been intimidating before. It is not meant to be cited necessarily, but hopefully it can guide you towards research that you can cite and engage with more deeply. Radio and Video are excellent for the “so what?” elements of your written work. Why should non-academic people go through the trouble of tracking down your article? How does it serve the community outside of universities?

Perhaps one mistake I see most often with research presented through Radio/Video is the certainty demanded from these kinds of performances. We all know politicians are lying when they say “we will do X AND Y AND Z AND A AND B AND C!” but it’s required from this public performance. I think that pressure translates into these mediums sometimes as well. In my ideal world, researchers would have a cool, intriguing question AND a clear “so what?” that was accessible to a wider audience. Then they could take you on a journey of discovery — what have you been trying along the way to answer your question? Not promising a result and immediate application. The TEDTalks and podcasts I’ve heard about the discovery journey are among my very favorites — and they serve to inspire new generations of young researchers.

I think it’s easy to say “X MEDIA HAS RUINED EVERYTHING” but harder to say, what is this medium doing well? How can I use it to make my research more accessible and engaging? How can we work together to improve the ways that research is presented in media? THESE are interesting and challenging conversations. It’s worth thinking about how your research would look in each of these formats — and how/why it changes.

#ScholarFest

Last week I attended the ScholarFest at the Kluge Center in the Library of Congress.

Perhaps the best moment was being asked by the hostess if I would like to visit “the past, present or future?” and then, upon selecting the future, being led down a beautiful hallway in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library and settled into the beginning of a discussion about life on other planets.

The event initially came into my periphery when someone that I work with at TED sent a description of the event, highlighting their program for the “Lightening Conversations” and asked if I had time to go. I said, absolutely.

[Quick update: videos from Scholarfest are now on youtube. Here is the session cut for the Future]

First, what were the “Lightening Conversations?”

The first part of the ScholarFest program used scholars paired based on mutual research interests, tangentially related research interests, or directly opposing research interests.

Each pair was given 10 minutes to start a dialogue intersecting their research and/or engaging with each other’s work. Speakers were not directly introduced by the initial introduction to the event, instead weaving in a quick line or two about their work in the first few minutes of each session. There were five sessions in the first piece of the program and some time set aside for town hall style Q&A. The total program ran for an hour and 20 minutes before it transitioned into a new room with a new theme.

The structure of each pairing depended on what the two speakers decided they wanted to do. Participants were informed of their pairing and introduced to the other speaker the night before the panel. For some, it seemed they had found new collaborators and conspirators, even though their topics and opinions on various subjects varied so greatly. For others, the mix could be abrasive, but also ended quickly.

Some of the structures that evolved during these 10 minute Lightening Conversations:

  • each person introduced a few key points and themes from their research,

  • each person introduced their work and then asked their partner about their specific research work,

  • they started with a thematic question that applied to both of their areas of interest,

  • they presented a question directly to the other person

  • a science historian moderated/interviewed the scientist

  • the critiqued each other’s theories/work and had a lively discussion

  • they discussed and wove themselves from each other’s work into the same discussion

I was intrigued by the Lightening Conversation format for a few reasons. First, it seems like a great way to breathe life back into Academia. It was a wonderful treat for me, as a researcher, to watch experts in their fields have an open conversation and ask each other questions. It was a chance to see how their minds worked outside of purely academic contexts and formats. The informality and speed of the conversations meant that each person had to think on their toes.

Second, the interdisciplinary themes of the Future (and some of the other conversations, in particular Freedom of Speech) meant that these experts were asked to step outside of their fields of expertise and engage in new thought experiments. It made academia feel more human. Challenging. Like a continued experiment that the audience was invited to watch and engage with… not a typical experience when attending a university lecture. A lot of ground was covered quickly.

Finally, the audience was offered a wide range of perspectives before they were offered the opportunity to reengage with the entire cast of speakers from that session. Rather than pull from a single thread of opinions or thoughts, there was a tapestry of conversation to pull from and multiple experts could respond to our questions. This was nothing short of delightful. I felt very spoiled.

I would really like to see more of this take place at Yale (and others, but I can only speak from my experience). It brought rich life back into the research I’ve seen only in very long and dense academic texts. Looking forward to ScholarFest next year!