Why academic writing should be more social

June 20, 2013 — 6 Comments

It’s that time of the year again. Finals are coming up and I should be doing anything but writing this blog post. But somehow it fits this very moment so here it goes.

The way we are writing theses is 200 years old

Last November I had an interesting Skype conversation with Bill from Ohio. At that time I was writing my bachelor thesis and wanted to know how various PR-experts think about the upcoming of inbound marketing. At the end of our one-hour-discussion I told him how frustrating it will be to put all the stuff from our talk into my paper, as I had to do transcripts for all of my interviews. I asked him why there was no way to simply add a video or audio file of our conversation to my thesis. Bill Sledzik is Associate Professor at Kent State University in Ohio and has asked himself this question many times. The way we have been writing theses has been the same ever since it was established by some Harvard or Cambridge University 200 years ago. It seems the only reason why we don’t change it is because it has never been done says Bill. But does this mean it has to stay this way?

A needed changeold house Why academic writing should be more social inspiration

I mean why should we even change this tradition of writing theses? Well let me try to explain myself. The goal of academic writing is to come up with new findings and to provide knowledge for further research. Usually this is done by one individual or by a group of scholars. When the work is finished an academic bedding process continues (which can take years) and finally a book gets published, only to be read by a minority of people who show interest in this specific field. If you are a student, chances are your paper is never going to be read by anyone except for your supervisor or professor. Which honestly is quite frustrating if you think of all the work you put into it.

Immediate feedback

In today’s age however, there are much better possibilities. Take the example of David Wineberger, Ph.D. who serves as a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. He puts a lot of his information on his blog versus waiting for his work to get published. The main advantage is that it’s immediate and could create an immediate discussion. Through the comments on his posts he gets direct feedback which he can put right into his writing process. Now whereas most people might not consider blog posts as necessarily scholarly, I still see a lot of value because of the potential of dialogue. And shouldn’t that be the ultimate goal of writing academic papers? Not to write for prestige or for good grades but rather to engage with other people, who are interested in the same field and establish some sort of dialogue.

The solution?

To provide this sort of dialogue universities should grant access to academic papers online. Most faculties have already uploaded their work to some sort of online-archive but there is still no room for discussion and it is often not even possible to contact the author of the paper. It is simply not enough to store theses as pdfs so you can download them. First of all it does not allow people to comment, but more importantly search engines as Google are not able to scan the content of pdfs which means people are not even able to find this precious source of research.

An ideal solution would be to:

1. have scientific papers on a plattform (as simple as a blog) which allows discussion and dialogue.

2. use social media as a powerful way to destribute and comment on these papers.

3. provide an easy way to upload multimedia files such as recorded interviews and demonstration videos.

 

There is a lot of value in theses papers that many students and professors have put their effort into. Using the simple technology of today would let this work prosper versus just being forgotten in a large university archive.

I think this can easily be done. The only reason we don’t do it is because it has never been done before.

  • http://richardrbecker.com/ Rich Becker

    I agree with you Sam. I look at programs like iBooks (which isn’t perfect, but has potential) and wonder why we haven’t raised the bar for academic papers, white papers, etc. Everything is remarkably static. We need both — a fluid always breathing document application with multimedia and the option to take a snap shot (preserving the original). I keep have dreams about it. It will happen, one day.

    • sambredl

      Hi Rich, thanks for stopping by!

      I also use iBooks, I use it to read academic papers on my iPad. It saves a lot of printing costs :) As you pointed out very well things are truely static and what we are missing is a place of dialogue and discussion. There’s a social network for academics (http://www.academia.edu/) which already shares this idea. However, I feel that the discussion here is very much limited to researchers and papers can not be found outside of this network. I’m sure there are lots of people out there that would love to see this happen!
      Thanks again for commenting and let me know if you stumble across anything related to this topic!

      Cheers, Sam

  • knaussi

    interesting opinion. and as a student i like this way of thinking! well done! :)

  • Agnes Bredl

    Great and creative-lets hope we soon can put that into practice!

  • Ana Maria Marcu

    I totally agree with this one. I really wish that the Library of the University of Technology in Vienna had some possibility to show a list of members that read my thesis after I uploaded it and what is it that they thought about it. Some list of comments like the one I am writing now. Just think of all the ideas and new connections with like-minded people one could have out of this.

    • sambredl

      Good point Ana! It would be such a benefit to not only the writer but also to future contributers to that topic. Thanks for your comment!