Can Academics Change the World If They Stop Talking Only To Their Peers?, By Mohammed Dahiru Aminu
In great institutions of higher learning, academics are encouraged to disseminate their ideas and research to lay people, as much as they are encouraged to do so with their peers. That is the whole idea of having community service as an essential duty of the academic, aside teaching and research.
In an essay published on March 8, 2016, which I only read recently, in The Conversation, and entitled “Academics can change the world – if they stop talking only to their peers”, the Bosnian author, Savo Heleta, argues that research and creative thinking can change the world; implying that academics have enormous power, but the overwhelming majority are not shaping today’s public debates. Heleta further posits that work from academics are largely sitting in journals that are read almost exclusively by their peers. The author then supported his position with some reasons, thus: “…a narrow idea of what academics should or shouldn’t do; a lack of incentives from universities or governments; and a lack of training in the art of explaining complex concepts to a lay audience.”
But I disagree with the premise of Heleta’s thesis. I believe that academics who need public debates of their ideas are largely doing so, at least to the best of my knowledge. Take for instance, famous academics in the management and social sciences like Yanis Varoufakis, Paul Collier, and many others, have publicly debated their ideas and findings to the lay community, as much as they have published them in scholarly journals meant for the exclusive consumption of their peers. Academics in science, technology, engeneering and mathematics (STEM) are also publicly educating the professionally untrained community about their ideas and findings.
What academics publish in journals are put out there because journals are not meant for lay people. I sense that Heleta may have presumed that when academics publish in journals, they cannot at the same time engage in public debates about what they have published. If so, that is a flawed presumption. In great institutions of higher learning, academics are encouraged to disseminate their ideas and research to lay people, as much as they are encouraged to do so with their peers. That is the whole idea of having community service as an essential duty of the academic, aside teaching and research.
At best, if the readers are politicians, they can facilitate the funds for implementation of the project. But then, to facilitate such, they do not have to understand the nitty gritty of a journal paper — just as we can all feel the impacts of climate change, even when we do not understand some of the science published in scientific journals…
It is also flawed that results in journals are sitting in conditions of stasis, to no good. They are not. All the important ideas in journals have been scaled up for implementation to address societal challenges. That is why the world is constantly advancing. That is why we do PhDs and significantly contribute to knowledge, so that such knowledge is implemented for development; thus, the conjoining of the words ‘Research and Development’. If the journals were sitting idly to no good, the world would not have developed as impressively as it has this far.
All lay people in the world do not have to read journals and understand them before the society can advance. Even when they understand the writings published in the journals, they are not able to implement the knowledge therein due to their obvious lack of professional training. I fail to see how lay people will help in the technical implementation of say carbon dioxide storage with impurities in the injection stream, simply because a journal author discusses her technical paper with lay people (an understanding that will be manifestly inadequate no matter how the author tries). At best, if the readers are politicians, they can facilitate the funds for implementation of the project. But then, to facilitate such, they do not have to understand the nitty gritty of a journal paper — just as we can all feel the impacts of climate change, even when we do not understand some of the science published in scientific journals with focus on the climate change research.
…then again, there are other avenues which academics can utilise for the service of the community by writing on platforms where they do not assume that the readers have the same background as they do; these are platforms such as newspapers or some online media platforms.
Perhaps here is a real-world example. When writing about any given topic, a senior secondary school student should write what is understandable by his/her fellow senior secondary school students. The secondary school student would not ordinarily write in such a way that the language is easily understandable by a primary school pupil. If, however, they did write for the understanding of the primary school pupil, then there will be the need to explain much of the terms and ideas that fellow secondary school students can understand, but primary school pupils cannot know.
It is in this same manner that professionals in the same field write in the language that is understandable by fellow professionals. By their training, all professionals in the same discipline already have a common language. Therefore, it is natural for them to use language that assumes they are writing for people with whom they share a common knowledge base; which is a common background and education. Within this context, it may also be expected that the scholarly publication platform also assumes that although some terms may have certain everyday colloquial meanings, nonetheless, within a given field, they will have specific and explicit technical meanings that are readily recognisable and understandable by fellow professionals. It is for this reason as a scientist, I can read and understand literature in my field, but at the same time, I will struggle to even follow the content of a technical paper from a different scientific discipline. And the reason for this is not far-fetched; it is that I do not have the knowledge base that the professionals in that field possess. But then again, there are other avenues which academics can utilise for the service of the community by writing on platforms where they do not assume that the readers have the same background as they do; these are platforms such as newspapers or some online media platforms.
Mohammed Dahiru Aminu (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes from Yola, Nigeria.