Who do you think you are talking to?

Working in solitude in a study may have been OK for St Jerome, but if we want our research to have impact I would suggest we should talk to a far broader audience.

Working in solitude in a study may have been OK for St Jerome, but if we want our research to have impact I would suggest we should talk to a far broader audience.

 

“Why isn’t anyone interested in educational research these days?” The question came from a colleague who was clearly feeling a certain amount of frustration and needed someone on whom she could vent her considerable angst. “We do all this work, spend time devising research instruments, collecting data, analysing what we’ve found and then writing reports and papers, but then it seems nobody bothers reading it.” She was clearly having a bad day.

I’m sure I did little to ease her blood pressure by my response and now I am feeling a little guilty about this. “Perhaps more people are reading your work than you know,” I suggested, trying gently to move towards what I really wanted to say. “Or perhaps there would be people who might be interested if they knew about the research.” The minute I uttered this last phrase I knew I should have kept quiet. The repost was wholly predictable and came at me exactly as I should have expected. “But the work is there for all to see, it is published in a well-respected international journal, what else am I supposed to do?”

It is the end of a busy term and I didn’t want to get too deep into a philosophical discussion about why teachers don’t read research papers, or why policy makers appear to ignore empirical studies, so I made a few sympathetic noises, assured my colleague that her work was respected or possibly even revered by those closest to her subject, then made my excuses and left. However, having been subjected to her exasperated outpourings I did go away and think a little more about what she said.

It does seem to me that the problem which my colleague articulated is not so much about the value or efficacy of the research, but is much more closely related to the ways in which it is communicated. As “academics” we are encouraged and indeed expected to publish research in high ranking academic peer reviewed and preferably international journals. These are the rules of engagement that have been established by those “elite researchers” whose concern is to maintain high academic standards and ensure the quality of educational research. This is a perfectly valid system and one to which those of us working in universities have long subscribed. Those who assess the quality and impact of research do so through a journal ranking system, and like so many lemmings we have followed  the leading researchers in the field, in a desperate race to be first over the edge of the cliff. This then is the academic game in which we are all involved.

Returning to the frustrations of my colleague I can therefore sympathise with her dilemma. She wishes to establish herself as an acknowledged authority and key researcher and writer in her field of expertise. In order to do so she has rightly recognised that she has to play the game according to the rules. But returning to her original question, “why isn’t anyone interested in educational research these days?” I would suggest that perhaps she is too concerned with her own status as a researcher and needs to focus more on why educational research may have value. As someone who claims to undertake research because I want to improve the lives of children and their families and teachers, I recognise that this is not going to be achieved unless I can discuss my work directly with them. Publishing papers in journals or presenting my research at an international conference undoubtedly has a place. But the individuals for whom I claim motivation for my work are not going to access either of these outlets. Perhaps as researchers we should spend more time engaging with those whose lives we would hope to improve through our investigations, and less talking to our peers. Maybe we should be exploring ways of disseminating our work that reaches an audience other than our colleagues who are engaged in similar areas of research.

What I am suggesting will not, of course, gain points in the competition for promotion in academic institutions, neither will it attract a great deal of respect from the “elite researchers”, but it might mean that a wider audience expresses interest in research and even informs us about how me should improve and progress our work. Maybe we should be writing in plain English (or whatever other language is most accessible), and publishing in magazines, on websites or through other media that can be readily accessed by those who do not wish to wade through reams of literature, methodological discourse, statistical analysis or academic pontificating. Perhaps a more polymorphous approach whereby we make our work available to a wide range of parties that might include academic researchers, teachers, parents and children will enable research to reach a broader audience and command greater respect.

What is that scream I hear from the editorial board of that highly ranked journal? – Populist nonsense I hear them shout. Yes, that may be true, but I believe that unless we change our ways we are destined to become even more of an irrelevance in the eyes of teachers, policy makers, families and children. Those of you who disagree do carry on talking amongst yourselves!