Let me start by asking a question: how many people think that a producer, reporter, or intern for CNN, NBC, or any other news organization actually reads full articles in Nature, Science, or the New England Journal of Medicine to find out about the latest scientific and medical breakthroughs for their news reporting?
Yeah, me neither. So what’s really going on when journalists spend two weeks suggesting that journal articles are out of touch and inaccessible? And if there’s a kernel of truth to the claim, is there anything we as scholars can do to address the concern?
If nothing else, the past few weeks have shown that academia (history and literature among them) has an image problem with respect to our research (it’s esoteric and out-of-touch) and our public engagement (which is apparently hiding under a rock somewhere). Since Nicholas Kristof published the New York Times op-ed that launched a thousand angry diatribes, it seems like nearly everyone has weighed in on whether academics are publicly engaged, how we should define public engagement, whether academic writing is too academic (no, really), and so on. I largely agree with the critiques—we are far more engaged than Kristof allows, and do so in ways that put to shame his narrow conception of public engagement—but if we re-frame the issue as at heart an image problem, I can see an area where academics, and historians in particular, could do something better: publicize our work.
Those from outside the academy have all seemed to agree on one thing: journal articles are boring (and possibly badly written). Ezra Klein goes so far as to warn journalists that they should be glad that scholars are not good public communicators because it allows journalists to take advantage of our expertise for free. (You’re welcome, by the way.)
That discussion misses the point in two ways: access and audience.
First of all, no matter how beautifully written a journal article is (and if you read a journal like the William and Mary Quarterly, you know that the bar can be set rather high), the general public won’t read it. Even if you solved issues of JSTOR, Project Muse, and other cost barriers to journal articles, the average educated reader would never encounter an article in the Quarterly. The journal is simply not addressed to them. Academic writing is, as Joshua Rothman bemoaned in the New Yorker, “so academic” precisely because it’s written for an audience of other scholars. There’s nothing wrong with that. And some of it is written in rather technical language because it engages with theoretical constructs or manages sophisticated empirical models (though I don’t discount the critique that good writing is not emphasized as part of the review process).
In other words, when we write we address an audience, and frequently multiple ones. That’s where the publicity comes in.
At base, every journal article aims to reshape the way other scholars see the field or subfield, or should in any event. But many articles have public policy impact (whether Kristof cares to notice or not), are aimed particularly at teachers or for use in the undergraduate classroom, or would influence local historical societies or other groups.
When Science and Nature publish groundbreaking research with impact for multiple audiences, they put out a press release. So why can’t the AHR, the Quarterly, and other history publications?
Doing a better job of publicizing our work in the humanities and social sciences, that is, translating our arguments for an educated public, would immeasurably improve our public engagement, and consequently our public perception. To accomplish that, I propose that journals include a brief questionnaire for authors of accepted articles to aid in publicity. It’s relatively low key but would help authors reach audiences more readily (and force many to consider audiences they might not otherwise have). It could be as simple as this:
- Besides researchers, what audiences do you believe your article should reach?
- College-level instructors
- High school instructors
- K-8 instructors
- Other academic disciplines (please specify)
- Historical societies or other local groups
- General-interest publications
- Local news organizations
- Please include a 100-word abstract of your article for your intended audiences. You may submit as many different iterations as you would like based on the audiences to which you wish to reach out.
That’s it. Then publicize like mad. Send out a press release to news organizations, write to teachers’ groups with interest in the topic, post summaries of journal articles to AHA Today or a blog for the journal. Use the survey as a guide and reach out to people who might be interested in the research findings.
Is it a little more work? Yes, absolutely. But we already have these audiences in mind. Thinking about them more consciously and approaching them directly by doing the necessary work means that we can have greater impact when we publish in journals.
 I’ve included a few links scattered through the post, but I’d exhaust myself trying to be comprehensive. Search for “Nicholas Kristof” and “engaged academics” on Google and Twitter if you’d like to bludgeon yourself with even more blog posts about the debate.