Help Us, Academia, You Are Our Only Hope.


Yesterday, The Scholarly Kitchen’s David Crotty reflected on the presidential omnishambles in his piece “The US Election, a Need for Curation, and the Power of Story”. He offers two points: the first – which is well taken – tackles the role of Facebook and its information bubbles built by algorithms.

Crotty’s other point is the lack of a narrative for scholarly publishing. He writes:

We are notoriously poor at telling our story. We know we do something valuable, but what we do is often subtle and unseen, and when we start describing it, we get lost in the details and the caveats. At that point, we’ve lost our audience.

For the last decade and a half, we have been trying to counter an argument that all publishers are greedy corporations, reaping massive profits, and bent on stopping cancer patients from reading about their conditions. Or one that publishers steal the hard work of researchers and then sell that work back to them at exorbitant prices. Neither of these arguments is particularly true, but both resonate emotionally. That’s hard to counter with wonky charts showing declines in cost-per-use or cost-per-citation or an in-depth explanation of the peer review process. Rooting for a self-declared Luke Skywalker over someone they’re accusing of being Darth Vader is much easier to get behind than understanding the subtleties of a complex service industry.

While the bit Crotty describes as “not particularly true” is, well, debatable, the rot in scholarly communication runs much deeper. “People of this country have had enough of experts”, opined Michael Gove just before Brexit. At that moment, scholarly communication was handed the bill for failing spectacularly at making itself understood, relevant, and persuasive. This is not just due to pay walls or too many facts to make a convincing case; the bitter truth is that an increasingly incomprehensible ivory tower – and the academic publishing industry is part of it – has utterly disconnected from the wider public.

The thing is, good writers are incredibly rare in academia and editors are by now seen as a luxury most publishers cannot afford. Both exist almost in spite of a system that on the one hand is insatiable when it comes to new content but on the other considers rhetorical skills and the craft of writing to be a given. Yes, there are writing programs here and there, additional courses offered by graduate academies and the like, but the fundamental skills of communication have not really been at the core of our education for a long time. And now it shows. We get lost in technicalities, unable to clearly convey the bigger picture and relevance of what we do. We cannot thrill, excite, and stimulate a wider audience with our discoveries because we never really learned how to formulate and produce a good story. Our tales are boring, disjointed, and more often than not a stylistic nightmare. Who wants to read this stuff?

While the hour is late to own up to this, it is good that we realize the problem not only in the US and Britain but also in Europe. Here too the concern over a missing narrative is manifesting itself. In yesterday’s Forward the Commons! A unifying political vision for Europe the authors call for a positive counter-narrative:

The crisis of the European Union begs for new, unifying and constructive narratives – alternatives to the right-wing populist and nationalist wave that is getting fiercer every day. A commons approach holds the potential for a unified vision towards an alternative economy, a Europe from the bottom up and an ecological way of life.

It remains to be seen whether such a vision will convince those Europeans who are already under the spell of the fear-mongering, anti-intellectual tales of “us vs. them” that characterize so many of our right-wing demagogues. The would-be authors need to remember that a good story needs conflict and a hero, a familiar structure and a touch of magic. Take Trump’s slogan “Make America great again”. Its disconcerting genius lies in the fact that it distilled all these elements into four words.

But finding these crucial structural ingredients will not be enough. To quote Pulitzer, the authors of an alternative narrative will have to:

Put it before them briefly so that they will read it,
Clearly so they will appreciate it,
Picturesquely so they will remember it,
And, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.

It is foolish to think that such skills just somehow appear. They need to be learned. Enter another crucial element of any good story: the mentor. Who other than academia can fill the role of the Merlins, Gandalfs, and Obi Wan Kenobis? If scholarly publishing once more considers the readability of content as an important hallmark of quality and academia rediscovers its duty of preparing folks with the communicative tools for a reflected, well-informed life, then we may be able to at least adjust the narrative and look to brighter days ahead.