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  • Writer's pictureKristen Weatherby

The vulgarisation of academic research: It's a good thing

Recently I have been doing a lot of work with national research and evaluation agencies in France (including L’Agence Nationale de la Recherche and Hcéres). This work has, obviously, been conducted in French. While my French is good, it is by no means perfect, and as such I have learned a lot of new vocabulary by reading hundreds of pages of documents and attending countless hours of online meetings in French. (A special thanks goes to my very patient French colleagues!)

One of the French words I have learned recently is vulgarisation. In the context of research, it means to communicate academic research in a way that non-academics can understand it. Let’s ignore how negative the world vulgarisation sounds and focus on the fact that there exists a word for this concept in French. Presenting research findings in a way that is accessible to non-academics is a vital and often neglected aspect of academic research. When I taught research skills to edtech start-up founders as part of UCL's EDUCATE edtech accelerator (now split into EDUCATE Ventures and UCL Edtech Labs), I often spoke about how challenging it is for non-academics to access academic research, for several reasons. First, it's difficult to find relevant articles if you don't know what you're looking for. Second, although it's easier these days to access journal articles outside of a paywall, much of it is still not available without a university affiliation or journal subscription. In addition, academic research is also written in a language that is often intentionally difficult to understand. When I was writing up my own doctoral dissertation, my supervisor told me she was worried that the assessors would think that my writing style was too clear, which could reflect negatively on my research. As a former English teacher and book editor, I had never been told that clarity in writing could be a bad thing. Finally, it can be challenging for non-researchers to understand whether the compelling study they are reading about is actually of good quality, or applicable in contexts like theirs. This can lead many non-academics to put their good faith in findings that are either unreliable or not replicable in their own business or educational context.

I am continually reading academic research for my work with clients. I also publish articles in academic journals (see recent articles in my CV) and frequently present at academic conferences, although I find the journal publication slow and challenging, especially for someone conducting research outside of a university. But I personally learn a great deal in the research and writing process, and I believe in the importance of using learnings from research to make more evidence-informed decisions. But I’m also one of those weird people who love research. When I worked at the OECD, one of the things I loved the most about the huge trove of data we had access to was being able to present it to a variety of audiences, selecting the right findings to weave together a story that addressed the needs of the audience.

Thus I've decided to learn from my French colleagues and will use this blog to vulgarise research that is interesting to me, but that I also feel might appeal to people in my network. The research is likely to involve teachers, teacher policy and educational technology, as these are my areas of interest. My journal sources will be limited to English-language journals and some French journals that I can access outside of a university, but this means they should also be accessible to my network. In this way, I hope that regardless of your role, you too can use academic research to help you make evidence-based decisions in your daily work.

If there are any specific topics on which you’d like to find research within the domains I’ve listed, drop me a line and I’ll see what I can find.

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