Tuesday 11 September 2012

Good Writing

I'm no expert on academic writing.  I'm even less of an expert on medical stuff, but in the last month I've been spending the time I'm not playing with my kids, to help develop on-line writing resources for students at University of Birmingham Med school to encourage academic writing.

My experience of academic writing began with Sigmund Freud.  While I was working at Brooklands Hospital, I'd spend my lunch break reading paper after paper - it's good stuff, and as he covers issues as diverse as  creativitymedicinal use of cocaine and, of course, family relationships.  It's good mainly because it's readable.  You don't need to be a doctor to understand it - Freud is amusing, playful, conversational and maybe a little mischievous.  He knew how to write a story, isn't afraid to be opinionated, or indeed 'subjective', and most importantly knows how to construct a good argument around his findings.  This does not fit into Gillet, Aveyard et al, Levin, and many University guidelines on what 'academic writing' should be, but the influence of Freud, the audience he has reached cannot be denied, and must be, in large part, to his writing -  he lectured extensively, and also wrote letters documenting at least part of dialogues with Jung and others, but his published material reached a much wider audience.  

Over one hundred years ago publishing was very different, and the options to promote your scientific findings far more limited.  Academic journals, the monograph, and monographic series were an important means of reaching an audience, and a valuable means to find out about quite specialist subjects.  They represented a 'who's who' of important people within a discipline.  

In the last ten years we have witnessed an explosion of writers using the internet to publish, while at the same time more traditional peer review academic journals, on-line  and paper, have declined.  More and more people are writing, just not for the same academic journals and monographs that previously were so important.  Doug BelshawStanley Chodorow and Gideon Burton are three of the many 'education technologists' and others who go further, suggesting 'we are gathered here around the comatose body' of this form of academic writing.

Wikis, including wikipedia, blogs, discussion forums of all kinds, are all promoting writing from a wider number of people, some of which is every bit as 'good' as any academic journal.  You don't have to wait months to see if you will be published.  You won't be beholden to experts within your field, who may have considerable vested interests in either delaying or promoting your essay.  You will get valuable feedback from people who read your stuff.  As a research tool you will be contributing to a far more significant shared knowledge than any journal, and as your reputation (hopefully) grows, so will your readership.

You don't have to be an expert to write.  The more you write, the more feedback from your readers, the better your writing.  Peer review academic journals may not always be the best for this, but if that's what you want, writing in other media will make it more likely you'll get the invitations to write for peer review journals anyhow!

Useful links:

Other academic writing aids:

And (in case you were wondering) my own limited contribution to published writing


  1. Hi Marcus it's an interesting point of view but I don't think there is much evidence that we are witnessing the end of the scientific journal as there are new journals being developed all the time. There are lots of ways to write in medicine and science including (some) very good blogs, Wikipedia as well as the more traditional scientific and medical journals. The most appropriate forum probably depends on what the purpose of the writing is. Writing for a general or "lay" audience may be better done away from the academic journals but anyone who wants to develop a career in research, attract funding and secure employment will probably need to publish at least a proportion of their work in peer reviewed journals as that is how we are judged by our peers, funders and employers (which you may think is right or wrong). As someone who regularly writes for and reviews for journals I am not sure that I believe the argument that the journals are controlled by a cabal of self-serving senior researchers only interested in allowing publication of papers that agree with their particular views. Most papers rejected (speaking both as an author and reviewer) are just simply not good enough either in terms of their scientific content or ability to communicate. Peer review is there to act as a quality control not to censor unacceptable opinion.
    Most of the major universities and research funding bodies are increasingly interested in public engagement by researchers and open access publishing (which is expensive - depending on the journal £2000 or more per paper) and increasingly funding is dependent on demonstrating that research will be actively communicated to patient and other interest groups as well as via more traditional routes.
    The purpose of more traditional scientific writing is to present a balanced view of the available evidence on a topic rather than just an opinion although this does not mean it cannot entertainingly written.
    I just wanted to present my own personal view on the value and purpose of the more traditional publishing routes for academics.
    Matt Morgan

  2. Hi Matt, thanks for response. I agree, I don't see a 'comatose body' either. I'm arguing for emphasis on 'good writing', whatever form it takes. Your response to my blog is an excellent example of the benefits of using blogs and all other tools at our disposal to encourage dialogue and develop our thoughts and research which would not be possible through a scientific journal.

    I don't think other media is just for conversation with a 'general audience'. Much scientific endeavour happens because of a collaboration or cross-fertilisation of ideas, with very particular partners, not a conversation with a poorly identified 'lay' audience.

    I'd like to encourage students, lecturers, everyone to think about who their audience is (or could be), and write to, or create, the appropriate forum.

    Specialist peer review journals have their strengths and weaknesses and will continue hopefully alongside other good academic and other good writing. The more we can encourage people to write, the better the dialogues, and the better for scientific writing in journals too.

  3. The arguments are very interesting indeed.I am not academic to say the least,but I understand what you are getting at.When I was working in the pharmaceutical industry,we had to go through the"Lancet" to empower us with the latest development in medical research and development.The studies and trials were very complicated to understand and on top the results of those trials were so varied,it was impossible to draw conclusions.Those papers might be peer reviewed but that did not necessarily meant that it was easily fathomable for a "lay man".

  4. Thanks Sushan. I would hardly call a pharmacist a 'lay man' but I think yours, and Matt's use of the word 'lay' is interesting, from 'Laity' meaning 'of the people'. To use it in this context could imply 'common' and perhaps 'won't understand the complex arguments of a medical professional'. To me it emphasises a problem which academic writing could better address (in and outside journals like Lancet) - how can we better be understood by, and engage, the readers we want to attract, like pharmacists, nurses, physiotherapists, education specialists, scientists, engineers... whoever the audience is, or could be?

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