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Your Research Isn’t Gaining Traction? Then Work With Me, People!

Earlier this week I read an op-ed from two academics and I loved it so much I’m thinking of getting the headline tattooed on my arm. The title? “Prof, no one is reading you.”
The two, a visiting professor and a doctoral researcher, point out some startling data on the usage of scholarly publications in their piece:

  • Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within scientific communities – 82 per cent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once. No one ever refers to 32 per cent of the peer-reviewed articles in the social and 27 per cent in the natural sciences.
  • According to one estimate, only 20 per cent of papers cited have actually been read. We estimate that an average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read completely by no more than 10 people. Hence, impacts of most peer-reviewed publications even within the scientific community are minuscule.

And they share this very important line, “If a paper is cited, this does not imply it has actually been read.”
The two then describe ways to make scholarship more accessible and additional formats they encourage academia to embrace, including the use of media to share research and ideas with a broader audience. They advocate for institutions to list these placements prominently within bios and on websites.
Asit and Julian, you had me when you were dismayed with professors who look down on opinion editorials as a way to generate greater audiences for their work. And, I love that you pointed out what many are wary to admit—citations do not equal reads.
The easiest way to drive readers, citations and academic credibility to a researcher’s work is to partner them with the media. Whether it is through a written op-ed or expert citation or a sidebar breakdown of a complex topic, even the most pedestrian of outlets or stations allows for potential funders, colleagues and collaborators to learn of an academic’s scholarship. In addition, prepping faculty for interviews allows us to help them distill their ideas into understandable language—these digestible sound bites are exactly what’s needed to ask for grant funding or explain why their research matters (and should be supported) to state legislators.
The authors commented that they’ve met faculty who frown upon sharing their opinions broadly. The assumption, I would guess, is that the research should speak for itself. I have run into many faculty who share this opinion. I often bring them back around by pointing out that it is a rarity to find any faculty member who isn’t opinion-filled and passionate about their work. My job is to give them a safe platform to share that passion and convey that I can be trusted to deliver accordingly.
As luck would have it, I visited a campus immediately after reading the piece in The Straits Times. I mentioned it to a faculty member and saw the look that crossed her face—she wasn’t as sold on my thinking or the excitement behind it. So, I took the next hour to try to win her over. The reality is that I am passionate about sharing information with people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the data, findings or the “so what” moments that higher education takes for granted. And I’m passionate about helping faculty beam when they talk about the impact of their work. And I’m passionate about taking scholarship people have never heard of (such as that never read, never cited paper) and having it come to life for a new audience.
I’m so passionate about helping to create these moments that I’m willing to train faculty to write op-eds or be interviewed for NPR, or learn to speak in quotable statements or gain confidence when they see that tape recorder come out. And I do it because higher education matters.
All that I ask is that I be given a chance. Trust me. Give me an opportunity to learn from you and refine our approach, together. After all, we both have the same goal—to get that number of citations and reads to a critical number that allows each of us to have the privilege of continuing our work in higher ed.