End Elitist Information, Democratize Academia
By Sara Codair
Diamond is a slightly better average reader in her twenties. She reads novels when she has time, but a majority of reading happens on her smart phone: buzzfeed type articles, blogs and flash fiction. She finds herself drinking a lot of green tea and decides to research it. Google gives her millions of results, and most of the ones on the first page are lists of things about tea, like this: https://authoritynutrition.com/top-10-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-green-tea/ or http://www.nutritionsecrets.com/health-benefits-green-tea/.
They are short, written in clear, concise language and full of pretty pictures to keep the reader engaged. They are also laden with advertisements about diets that flaunt images of skinny, clear skinned woman drinking tea that is practically glowing.
It’s only been a few years since Diamond had to suffer through First Year Writing courses at the community college she studied at, so she hasn’t forgotten her English teacher’s warnings about internet sources. The advertisements mean that the site is out to make money. The author isn’t a scientist or doctor, in fact, he only has two more years of college than Diamond does. It leaves her skeptical, so she heads down to her alma mater’s library to try and find more credible sources.
The librarians don’t look as friendly as she hoped, so after a few minutes wandering in the stacks, she finds herself on the computer, skimming through databases. The first article that “Green tea and health benefits” gives her is “Emerging evidence for tea benefits.” The title seems to be exactly what she was looking for, so she clicks on it and downloads the article. The first two sentences seem to be written in plain English, but then she comes to this: “The mechanism may relate to bioactive compounds found in tea, which exert anti-arteriosclerotic, anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory effects.” She is persistent, reads it a few times, looks up “arteriosclerotic” and presses on. Sentences like “For weight management, modest, positive effects were found for green tea when ingested by overweight/obese adults, possibly related to thermogenic effects,” make sense, mostly, but she doesn’t know what to do with things like “As shown in Figure 1, green and white teas are not oxidised, thus contain large amounts of polyphenols, also known as catechins, which include (–)–epicatechin (E), (–)–epigallocatechin (EGC), (–)–epicatechin- 3-gallate (ECG) and (–)–epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG). A typical cup of green tea (2 g leaves and 200 ml water) contains 240–320 mg catechins, with EGCG providing 30–50% of that amount (Grove & Lambert 2009; Oliveira et al. 2013),” and “In terms of mechanisms of action, animal studies indicate that green tea extract (at doses of 50 mg/kg) may reverse endothelial dysfunction (Minatti et al. 2012) with the catechin EGCG being associated with reduced hyperplasia in the intima region of the carotid artery (Orozco-Sevilla et al. 2013).”
She skims the article enough to know that researchers did find evidence of at least some of the things mentioned in the internet articles. However, if she read carefully, she would see that scholars are reviewing studies are done by other people. There are a lot of words like “indicate” and “may” in the article, showing that while the studies are promising, they are not exactly definitive. They are starting to come together, but haven’t fully proven the benefits to the scientific community. On the other hand, the list articles are more definitive, proclaiming the health benefits as undisputed truth. She files that away in her head, and applies a little more skepticism the next time she reads online health articles.
The problem is, not everyone has a college education, and a good portion of the ones that do forget everything they learned about reading and writing classes as soon as they get that degree in hand. A less dedicated reader might have lost interest at the third sentence of the academic article if he or she even found it at all. A less dedicated reader would have just read things published on websites like Buzz Feed, or for a more credible source, the New York Times.
However, even publications known for their journalistic integrity are not the best sources for scientific information. They are business, after all, and they need to make money, which is especially hard when they are competing with the masses of free content available online. As a result, the public gets filtered and watered down versions from money making news outlets like the Atlantic or New York Times who spin the information to attract readers. We don’t need big brother telling us what we can or cannot read. Researchers and scholars do that for him by coveting their status and keeping the masses out of their smart people club.
Scholarly academic writing is often boring, needlessly complex and inaccessible to the average person. Maybe those who are not part of academia don’t care about knowing the details every study ever done. That is okay. However, one should be able to get the results and implications in a clear and accurate manner. Perhaps if academics wrote more engaging prose, more people would be willing to be read them, resulting in a more educated public.
The first hurdle faced by a person who his unaffiliated with an academic institution is access. Scholarly articles are not free online. Academic journals are more expensive than popular publications. So you either have to pay astronomical subscription fees or be affiliated with an intuition that pays those fees if you want to even see the article. Now, as a writer and adjunct, I can understand why the articles aren’t free. However, $75 is a steep subscription fee for a journal that only publishes three times a year. That’s what it would cost for someone who is not a student or NCTE member to subscribe to CCC or a similar publication. Science journals, which might be more relevant to the average person than articles about teaching writing, can cost even more. It isn’t easy to get information directly from the source, and that is a problem.
Do you remember playing telephone in elementary school? Did the sentence ever stay the same as it moved through the classroom? It never did in my experience. I find it terrifying when I realize that scientist and the media are playing a game of virtual telephone with information. In 2012, neuroscientist Molly Crocket gave a ted talk about how science in her field is misrepresented by the media. “Beware the Neurobunk” documents the journey of information as it transforms from facts to headlines.
What started out as study involving a nasty tasting drink containing a chemical called “tryptophan” morphed into headlines about how cheese and chocolate make people smarter, simply because they also contain that chemical. She gave several other examples of studies that have been misinterpret by the media. I could summarize more if it, but if you are interested, you should really just go watch the ted talk.
Essentially, it proves the public isn’t as educated or informed as they could be. Why? Why do academics need to love in a little elitist bubble? Yes, they do need to publish the professional lab reports for the peers, but why can’t they also publish a shorter version themselves that boils down the methods and limitations and focuses more on discussing the results and implications?
When journalist and bloggers act as middlemen, the integrity of the work is diminished. If the short versions were written by the scientist themselves, instead of a network of people playing telephone, the information is sure to me accurate, and less manipulated. And perhaps if researchers made more of their findings accessible to the public, they would get more support for the research. Imagine being able to get funding directly from the people – supplementing hard to come by grants from the government and corporations with money with crowd funding? Researcher wouldn’t be led by the whims corporations, the government and members of the 1% who seek to control what we know; it would be controlled by the people. It would make academia and the good work its people do more democratic.
Please feel free to continue the conversation in the comments. I’d love to hear what you think about this issue one way or another. Feel free to challenge me if you think I am wrong.