How to Reform Academic Research in a Digital Age (and Why We Should Care)

Academics face a number of challenges in a digital era as they struggle to change the ways in which research is conducted and shared. Here’s 10 thoughts on how to change this, and why these changes are so crucial.

Across almost every academic discipline, the process by which professors publish their work–and the ways in which they are evaluated–does not properly reflect the information age of which we now find ourselves. This past June, I had the honor of speaking at Fiske Matters, a conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison honoring the legacy of media studies scholar John Fiske. I took part in a panel that tackled the need for reform in academic publishing. For sake of simplicity, let’s look at 10 points:


1.) Academics Are Seldom Rewarded and Sometimes Even Punished for Sharing Their Work More Broadly. For non-tenured faculty, being charged with regular publication in traditional peer-reviewed journals (read largely only by fellow academics–and, in some cases, not even regularly read by peers) alongside teaching and administrative obligations leave little time for writing for other audiences, for engaging in platforms with quicker turnaround time (such as using blogs or Twitter accounts to discuss their research and work), or for engaging in research that may not immediately lead to an essay or report.

2.) Academics Are Too Often Trained to Make Their Ideas as Insular as Possible. This focus on traditional journals lead academics to write in a style and which makes their work somewhat purposefully inaccessible to those not in their field of expertise. The use of academic jargon, insider references, and lengthy literature reviews is encouraged and rewarded by many but serves to make the work much less reader-friendly.

3.) Academic Publishing Contains Too Much Lag Time.Many journals and presses have such long processes to get through the stages of publishing that all research feels overly historical by the time it is printed. While the presses take the brunt of the blame, academics all too used to such a leisurely system of publishing are notorious for extending deadlines to ridiculous lengths (an offense I’ve been occasionally guilty of myself).

4.)Academics Do Not Easily Have Access to Contemporary Work. Such a long lag time means that academics researching current phenomena often don’t have access to the work others are doing concurrently or, worse, work that had been completed but is still in the queue for publication. This leads to inefficiencies, redundancies, and a disjointed body of thinking across any given field.

5.) Academics Often Don’t Work Across Disciplinary Bounds.While universities are steadily spouting interdisciplinarity as key to education, many academics know few people on campus outside their department or school. What’s worse, many people researching a subject are only aware of the work that’s been done in their particular discipline. For instance, recent research from Kimberly S. Schimmel, C. Lee Harrington, and Denise D. Bielby found that those researching fans of popular culture and those researching fans of sports did not read one another’s work, despite the many ways in which these respective fan communities behave similarly. Such disconnects lead to research that’s disjointed, inefficient, and limited in more widespread application.

6.) Academics Are Too Often Split Between Their Teaching and Researching Selves. Often, the professor’s job to teach is perceived in opposition to her or his research, stealing time away from writing rather than augmenting it. In part, this happens because classes are too often not designed to tap into the instructor’s areas of research expertise and potentially missing opportunities to leverage the academic’s expertise, to bring relevant current issues from the professor’s research into the classroom, and potentially to strengthen both the educational and the research experience in the process.


7.) Academic Content Is Not Circulated in Other Contexts.One of the main challenges the academy faces is that, despite the rich amount of content being produced by academics and the digital publishing avenues which allow that content to spread, academic thinking too often remains written for and distributed within limited networks within academia. This lack of more widespread circulation both limits the effectiveness of academic work and deprives other communities of what could be highly relevant work.

8.) Significant Communication Barriers Exist between Industry and Academy. The most widespread gap is often between those working in a field and the academics studying the area. In the world of media studies, we launched the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium to help bridge these divides, a mission that too often was met with not just healthy skepticism but cynicism from many colleagues, despite the fact that conversations and collaboration between academics and the sectors they research within might lead to greater impact for their work and access to relevant information from the field to strengthen their research.

9.) Academics Appeal Beyond Advocacy Research. Why does this matter? First, while academics may be limited by the “publish or perish” attitude of traditional tenure review, they still often bring with them the unique ability to research a question to find an answer, no matter the outcome, rather than doing research that will only be shared if it bolsters a particular perspective or experimenting with a product only if it seems likely to turn an immediate profit.

10.) Academics Are Shaping the Perspectives of Tomorrow’s Leaders. Finally, to return to the teaching charge of professors, these researchers are engaging and shaping the people who will lead innovation tomorrow. Thus, the ways academics research and the ways that work engages students, fellow academics, activists, companies, regulators, and many other constituents will have a crucial impact on the ideas of those who will lead us into the future.

Whether you are in the academic world or far removed from it, you should care about what happens to this process. There remains a great deal of deep insights that could impact the world, yet remain siloed in a particular discipline, unpublished in a years-long editing process, or written in a language inaccessible outside the academy. Finding ways to tackle these issues is crucial for fostering new innovation.

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom, a PR agency, and a research affiliate with MIT’s Convergence Culture Consortium. Ford was previously the Consortium’s project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work with The Greenville Leader-News and publishing a weekly column entitled “From Beaver Dam to Brooklyn” in The Ohio County Times-News. He also blogs for Peppercom’s PepperDigital. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.


About the author

Sam Ford is Director of Audience Engagement with Peppercomm, an affiliate with both MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing and Western Kentucky University, and co-author of Spreadable Media (2013, NYU Press). He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and a board liaison to WOMMA's Ethics Committee