Accessible Research is Effective Research

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    I recently watched a lecture that reminded me a lot of what I thought my future as a researcher looked like. Starting my Laidlaw summer, I questioned if I was made for academic spaces because I got intimidated by the "high-level jargon." Beyond not understanding the language, we can encounter incomprehensible theories made by 18th-century rich men for the sole purpose of making everyone else feel inadequate for not thinking of such a "simple" thing earlier. (That sentence alone gave me a headache.) Entering research felt like I was little fish thrown in a big pond and expected to come out with a book published on the origins of man. The turning point was truly talking to other academics.

      With the help of my advisor and my graduate student mentor (we love David), I saw the reality of research and what it is like as an aspiring researcher. From the outside looking in, I placed research in false good or bad binary. Good research sounds complex and makes your head hurt. Bad research is just things people already knew, and anyone would think of if they tried hard enough. Every researcher I have come across completely deconstructed that binary. 

     Being in the world of academia and also existing in a discipline where I focus purely on making sense of things that people experience, I felt like I was not doing enough from that old lens. "I have to produce something revolutionary to be a real researcher," but what I have begun to understand is that creating products that no one wants to read defeats the purpose of creating anything in the first place. If we're going to contribute to the world, what sense does it make for our contributions to be inaccessible to the public? Why do we constantly push this narrative that big words equal big ideas? My sister always told me that if I cannot express my ideas for a paper in 60 seconds or less, I did not properly provide my audience with a valuable experience engaging with my work. No one wants to read an article or watch a lecture and leave feeling less intelligent than entering.     

     Teaching is allowing people to learn. Researching is setting the stage for you to teach people your ideas. I encourage all of us, especially being in a field where we can sometimes create grand theories about arts and humanities, to keep in mind that while we may know what we mean, our audience does not. Now, this can spark a whole conversation about audiences in academia being narrowed because of sociopolitical barriers. Still, at the end of the day, if we want to be the creators of articles, books, and presentations, our creations must be accessible in the way we present them. 

     "High level" language is sometimes unavoidable, but we should understand the fact that not everyone knows these things. Small things like adding extra context and defining terms go a long way. This is how we can address these issues in diversity with research. People get turned away from spaces that don't seem welcome, and flooding readers with SAT words is not a bright red welcome sign. Ask people outside of your field to read your work. Question your explanations of things to see if someone can easily understand them or as easy as you can make it. Being understood by the average person does not make your work any less impressive; it gives you the chance to have a bigger impact. Research is partially about the effect, and effective research is research that people can gain something from.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker via https://science.sciencemag.org/content/367/6473/34

Roberta Hannah

Undergraduate Student, Columbia University

I'm a second year student at Columbia majoring in African-American and African Diaspora Studies (and possibly public health or psychology). I'm really into politics surrounding identity and the ways societal values affect young Black women.

Comments

Go to the profile of Cath Brislane
3 months ago

This is really well said Roberta! I had to write an abstract recently which had to be accessible to an international audience and actually found it to be one of my trickiest tasks to date. Accessibility to research is a skill which is incredibly hard to master! 

I think others would find this really useful so please feel free to link this article in the Discord for maximum visibility :)