Democratization of knowledge and accessible writing practices

Recently, I shared a draft of my current manuscript with my father. He’d been asking for ages when I’d be done with my revisions, and I just wanted him to see what the peer review process was like. I wasn’t really intending for him to assess it critically, but that is what naturally happened. I never learn.

The main point he picked up on was also mentioned by the reviewers, so it’s no good feeling cross about it: the issue was my style of writing.

I know what you’re thinking. “How could this be? This writing is glorious! Golden! The prose falls upon the cerebral cortex like gentle rain upon the meadows!”

Ahem.

I have been battling Academia’s stalwart attempts to de-personalise my writing style for the last decade. My doctoral supervisor praised it for being ‘readable’ in the same breath as saying it was ‘too journalistic.’ We began to refer to the process of revising my writing as ‘de-Caroline-ing’, and I still think of it this way. Having just written that, I feel it’s a bit sad. To make my work and ideas acceptable in the academic context I must strip out as much of myself as possible.

Whether you view the removal of the researcher from the presentation of the research as a positive may depend on discipline. Social scientific researchers are encouraged to both consider their ‘positionality’ and its potential effect on the research and to be open and transparent about those aspects, often via statements in the methodological sections of publications. Recent conversation with a historian made me aware that this is more discipline specific than I had previously assumed. There is even less chance of acknowledgement of subjectivity in the ‘hard’ sciences, where the myth of objectivity still holds sway.

But I digress.

I am resistant to adopting a detached, dry, and technical academic writing style because I feel it reduces the accessibility of the knowledge contained in research publications. On the one hand, if your writing is dense, static and crammed with technical terms and disciplinary jargon, then it is more trouble for someone to read. This applies to academics just as much as normal* people.

*academics are not, repeat NOT normal

The more difficult and frustrating a piece is to read, the less likely someone is to a) persevere and finish it, b) retain the information, and c) cite it later. It also severely reduces the ability of scholars from other disciplines to read and understand your work. It’s all very well to bang on about interdisciplinarity and the like, but many academic papers are basically written in discipline-specific code. Thus, it is in the interest of the author to make their writing readable. This is a purely instrumental reason for resisting the de-Caroline-ing process.

More generally though, I also want my research to be accessible to normal people (non-academics) because knowledge is power, or at least the beginning of it.

Many academics try to achieve this through blogs like this one. I remember a Very Successful Cis White Male academic explaining that he presented each of his achievements in three formats: academic paper, blog post, tweet. I could say something very cynical, but I won’t.

There is also the Open Access movement in academic publishing. This is great – the stranglehold that big publishers have on academic publishing has been shown to be severely deleterious in a variety of ways. The move towards Open Access is part of the push for the democratization of knowledge in academia. The idea is that less knowledge is locked behind paywalls, so that scholars at cash-strapped institutions and scholars with no institutions can still access literature to support their research. But it’s not aimed towards normal people: it’s still democratization of knowledge within the creamy white walls of the ivory tower.

I guess I just want to be able to send anyone who is interested a journal paper and for it to not land on their virtual desk or lap like a dead weight of impenetrable prose.

Rolling back to where this post started, my father suggested that I adopt the dry academic tone for now, and that when I am wildly successful* I will have the authority and credibility to write in a more accessible manner.

*It’s called manifesting. Look it up

I remember reading Theodore Roszak’s The making of a counter culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition and being annoyed because it’s so well-written and the polemical style was so similar to what I wanted to use. Why wasn’t I allowed write like that when he could? Because he was well-established and thus able to write whatever he damn-well wanted.

I’m slightly scared that if I do wait until that mythical future time of success and legitimacy, I will have forgotten all about my principles. On the other hand, I suppose the likelihood of completely removing the Caroline from my writing is close to nil. So it’ll probably be ok.

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