One of the things we talk about a lot here in the Scholarly Kitchen, and in the various neighborhoods and niches of the scholarly-communication ecosystem generally, is public access to scholarly and scientific publications. We discuss the degree to which everyone ought to have access to those publications at no charge, and what are the most fair and effective means of making them freely accessible. We talk about the differences between “public access” and “open access.” We talk about the difference between technical accessibility and practical discoverability. And lately, it seems like there’s increased interest in another facet of access: comprehensibility of the content itself.
Let’s back up for a moment. It seems to me that there are multiple facets or dimensions of concern when it comes to public access to scholarly and scientific publications (which I’ll mostly save space by calling “scholarship” from here on). Actually, though, I wonder if it might be more useful to think in terms of layers:
Layer 1: Access to scholarship. This layer has to do with whether and to what degree the general public is able simply to find and to read scholarship. The easier it is to find and the less they have to pay to read it, the more access they have. Importantly, if you can’t actually gain access to the scholarship itself, then you don’t have either of the next two layers of access either.
Layer 2: Freedom to use content. This layer has to do with reuse rights. To the degree that scholarship is freely available to read, but not to reuse or repurpose, this layer of access is thin. This freedom grows and deepens with the reuse options made available to the reader. The most common ways of making reuse maximally free are by licensing the work to the public under a Creative Commons Attribution-only license, or by placing it into the public domain.
And then there’s a third layer, which is the one I want to discuss here:
Layer 3: Accessibility of content. Here the term “accessibility” doesn’t refer to the degree to which one may find, read, and reuse the scholarship; it refers to the degree to which the scholarly content itself can actually be understood by the generalist reader. And right now there’s some interesting debate going on about this layer of accessibility, with different voices making conflicting claims about the degree to which it’s possible (and desirable) to change the way scholarship is written and presented so that it will be more accessible to those who read it.
I won’t take the space here to rehash the various arguments, assertions, and proposals that are currently flying back and forth in discussion forums like the Open Scholarship Initiative listserv, in workshops put on by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in fellowship programs designed to teach students how to engage the public with their research, on university campuses, and so forth. These arguments are mostly based on an important but too-often unexamined assumption: that scholarship can be made generally comprehensible to a lay audience without a sacrifice in meaning and content.
All of this begs two important questions: is it actually possible to make advanced scholarship comprehensible to the general public, and if so, is doing so a good idea?
Both of these questions are provocative and politically fraught. If you answer “no” to either or both of them, you open yourself up to accusations that range in seriousness from laziness or a lack of imagination (“Of course scholarship can be made intelligible to lay readers; it just takes more effort than scholars and scientists are willing to expend”) to the more serious ones of intellectual elitism (“So you’re saying the general public is too stupid to understand scholarship?”) or political reaction (“You just want to keep the people in the dark so they don’t rise up and change the system”).
Is it possible to make advanced scholarship comprehensible to the general public, and if so, is that a good idea?
It seems to me that reality — as it usually is — is a bit more complex than this, though. Let’s consider some of the reasons why a scholarly or scientific journal article might be difficult for a non-specialist reader to understand, noting that some are more legitimate than others:
- It might be poorly written – either unintentionally (such as by someone who simply isn’t a good writer, or who has a poor command of the language in which the article is written) or intentionally (such as in an academic jargon that tries to signal complexity, depth, or in-group status by obfuscation).
- It might be well-written, but using vocabulary that has specific disciplinary meanings that aren’t known to the general public (for example, think of the very different meanings that the term “alienation” has in psychology, Marxian economic theory, law, and theater).
- It might be presented in formats that make it inaccessible to those with disabilities of various kinds.
- It might describe concepts and processes that are irreducibly complex (such that simplifying them for generalist consumption would alter their meaning or obscure important nuances).
- In unusual cases, it might clearly and accurately represent work that is actually nonsensical and has no coherent meaning (as in recent sting operations designed to expose fraudulent publishing practices).
(I’m sure this list doesn’t exhaust the possible explanations for difficulty in a scholarly publication; if readers have others to suggest, please do so in the comments.)
People don’t usually make this comment publicly or explicitly, but I’ve heard some hint around that making scholarship more broadly and easily understood could actually serve society badly, because the general public doesn’t have the intelligence or wisdom to make responsible use of the information. What if we make all of the scientific literature on vaccination protocols both available to and easily understood by the public, and the result is more people being empowered to twist and misrepresent the data for anti-scientific purposes (whether intentionally or not)? For what it’s worth, I think this is an indefensible position; it applies equally well to any information whatsoever. If we’re going to have an intellectual (or, worse, ideological) means test by which we decide who gets access to information, our democracy is in trouble.
However, I would argue that the more difficult and interesting issue is not whether the general public has either enough native intelligence to understand scholarship or enough judgment and strength of character to use knowledge wisely; the more relevant issue is whether the general public has enough background knowledge to comprehend advanced scholarly publications. And the answer, obviously, is that sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. And I want to suggest one important principle when it comes to making scholarship accessible to the generalist reader: apart from the writing style of the author, what makes a piece of scholarship comprehensible to the non-specialist reader may not be the complexity of the discipline itself, but the type of study being reported.
For example, oncology is a very complex field of scientific study. While one could certainly argue that anyone willing to put in lots of hard intellectual work would be capable of becoming an oncologist, it’s undeniable that the vast majority of people have not, in fact, put in that hard work, and therefore aren’t prepared at any given moment to start working as oncologists. But you don’t have to be an oncologist, or even have any background in oncology, to understand a clearly-written summary of the clinical trial of a cancer treatment. There is no reason why such a summary couldn’t be written in such a way as to make reasonably clear to a lay audience whether and to what degree the study indicated effectiveness in the treatment.
The degree to which it’s possible to make scholarship more accessible will vary by context and discipline, and the techniques that work will vary as well.
However, not all types of scholarly and scientific studies lend themselves to that kind of summary. To take an example from the humanities: Schenkerian analysis (a simple example of which is illustrated in the image at the beginning of this post) is an advanced form of musical analysis that is only comprehensible to someone who has a thorough grounding in music theory. There’s no way to “summarize” a piece of Schenkerian analysis and thereby make it understandable to someone who doesn’t know what a triadic inversion is or who doesn’t know the difference between harmonic modulation and harmonic mutation. Not all complexity can be reduced to simplicity without a real sacrifice of meaning. None of this is to say that the general public is too dumb to understand Schenkerian analysis; it’s only to point out that the general public consists mostly of people who have spent their time learning things other than music theory. The same issue applies to an awful lot of scholarly disciplines. Some consist of principles and concepts that could easily be expressed in more commonly-understood terms without undermining their meaning; others don’t. Clinical trial results are usually pretty easy to summarize in lay terms; mathematical proofs, maybe not so much.
What all of this suggests is that it may not be useful to talk about making scholarship or science “more accessible” in generic terms. The degree to which it’s possible to make scholarship more accessible is going to vary by context and discipline, and where it is possible, the techniques that work will vary as well. In some disciplines and with some kinds of studies, it may be wise to change the way in which studies are written up; in others, it may be wise to leave the writing alone, but add a layer of explanation or summary. And some kinds of studies may resist effective or accurate simplification at all.