How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Prof, No One is Still Reading You

I recently reread “Prof, no one is reading you,” a 2015 opinion piece in The Straits Times by the academics Asit K. Biswas and Julian Kirchherr.

You might have seen it when it first came out. It broke social. (But as anyone in the real world will quickly point out, that’s far from breaking reality.)

Still, “Prof, no one is reading you” is not only still relevant. It’s a classic, a touchstone in research communication thinking.

Biswas and Kirchherr don’t settle for tsk-tsking about the inaccessibility of scientific writing and how scientists need to write more clearly and compelling (and for open access journals) to make impact.

No, their argument has force because Biswas and Kirchherr have deep experience in the policy realm — and they can credibly state: Scientific papers are irrelevant by themselves to policymaking and practice, no matter where they’re published.

A few of the killer lines:

“Practitioners very rarely read articles published in peer-reviewed journals. We know of no senior policymaker or senior business leader who ever read regularly any peer-reviewed papers in well-recognised journals like Nature, Science or Lancet.”

“Many government leaders now maintain a standing instruction to prepare a two-page summary every morning of what the popular media writes about them and their policies…We are not aware of a single minister anywhere in the world who has ever wanted regular summaries of scientific publications in areas of their interest.”

“If academics want to have an impact on policymakers and practitioners, they must consider popular media, which has been ignored by them.”

“If the highest impact journal in the water field is considered, it has only four subscribers in India with a population of some 1.3 billion. Three years ago, neither the water minister nor those three levels below him had even heard of this journal. While a publication in such a journal will bring kudos to a professor, its impact on policymaking in India, where water is a very critical issue, is zero.”

If I had a dollar for every researcher who assured me they were going to reach policymakers if their paper got into Nature…

Zero awareness; zero influence.

“It may be about time to re-assess scholars’ performance. For tenure and promotion considerations, their impact on policy formulation and public debates should also be assessed.

“These publications often showcase the practical relevance and potential application of the research results to solve real world problems, and ability to communicate in a simple, understandable manner.

“Admittedly, impact is not guaranteed. Many policymakers already have a reasonably exact idea on the policy option they prefer.

“The policy must, first and foremost, satisfy their plethora of stakeholders. Very few decision-makers look only for the most optimal economic, social, environmental, technical, or political solution.

“Those who look for scientific evidence would vastly benefit from more publications by scholars in the popular media. Slowly, this is recognized within academia…Change is happening but at snail’s pace.”

You’re right if you say Biswas and Kirchherr didn’t change much with this piece. At least not yet.

But were they wrong to say it? Or have we been wrong to not repeat it enough?

Takeaway: Next time researchers say they’re going to reach a policy audience with a peer-reviewed paper, send them Biswas and Kirchherr.