We need to talk about the Conversation

There’s been some fuss over the possible death of Facebook, and whether such reports have been exaggerated. I’m not too interested in the story itself as much as what it shows us as a study in problems of science journalism. For me, it flags up larger questions about academic writing, and I’d be interested to know if others share these concerns.

Background: The BBC’s technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, did a bit of debunking, and complained about journalists overhyping academic research in the process. It was noted that one of the “hyped” reports came from an academic involved in the research, writing on the Conversation, a site which aims to bring academic voices into the public sphere, promising content from academics themselves (tagline: “academic rigour, journalist flair”). Then the academic himself, Daniel Miller, wrote a longer post via the UCL network saying that a key passage had been re-written by a professional journalist and he regretted agreeing to the final text. Cellan-Jones dubbed this “ghosted” which is maybe the wrong word. As Miller notes, there are compromises academics have to make in sharing their work to larger and different audiences, and it can be hard to draw lines between inaccuracy and retelling. Also the line between ghostwriting and editing can be slippery.

Problem: Miller’s experience of the Conversation resonated with me. I’ve been worried about its approach for a while.

When the Conversation launched first in Australia and then moved to the UK, I was sceptical. I didn’t see the point of a space for just academics’ content. Indeed, I thought that was possibly even a slightly dangerous idea. Also, I wasn’t sure it was needed, especially in the UK. Many academics were blogging on their own or university owned sites already, or for media organisations. But I could also see the value in a space for those who wrote less regularly, including support from professional writers and, despite my misgivings, I think they’ve published some great pieces which might not have made it out of the ivory towers otherwise.

Then, a few months ago, one of their journalists emailed to ask if I had views on university league tables. I said I had opinions but nothing I’d actually researched, and also I was really busy that week but, because I was sympathetic to the topic, I’d give her a quote if she wanted to write something herself. I also didn’t see the point in me writing for the Conversation. I can publish directly to the Guardian site. It seemed silly to chase people like me, a bit cheeky of them even (and I’d previously told Conversation staff this). Still, I stayed late at work and emailed a quote. She replied with a full piece incorporating my few hundred words but really by her, expecting me to add a little more and sign off as if it was authored by me. They were great words. But they weren’t mine. What would I give other than the credibility of my academic affiliation, which meant very little anyway as its not even a topic I have done empirical work on. I was rather shocked by this, so said no.

But I felt crap that we’d both put time into this and didn’t want a fight with a writer I respect, so wrote my own piece as a replacement, staying up late at night to do so. This is the result. I included a bit by the Conversation writer (paragraph 5) because she’d put work into it, and it was good, and I felt rude ignoring it. But it felt very wrong and I regret it. Not, as in the case of Daniel Miller, because it was bad. Quite the opposite. It saddened me that the work of a professional science journalist was being ignored because people seemed to want the cache of an academic voice.

I felt pressured into co-writing something I didn’t want to write, and pressured into saying it was by me. I should have just stood up to them and said “this is dumb and dishonest.” Because it is.

I’ve spoken to several other UK academics about the site since, wondering if they’ve had similar problems. Most say their experiences have been positive; light editing and useful feedback about focus or questions readers might ask, exactly what the Conversation purports to do. But a few others have grumbled too. It’s hard to tell if they are just grumbling in the cliched precious academic way of “but but but of course my jargon-filled eight-page single-sentence rant was more accurate” but I’m not sure. I also think that even if so, the work of the professional writer should be made obvious. A press release from a university communications team, for example, might well re-write research, but it won’t pretend to be the academic themselves (quotes are routinely fabricated by press officers in many fields, but honestly I don’t like that either and I also think the full posts of the Conversation are another step). I also continue to worry about them chasing content from those of us who are already writing a lot in the media, or even have careers in journalism. Mark Lynas has written for them, for example (he’s a visiting fellow at Cornell) and that seems even weirder than when they’ve asked the Guardian science bloggers to write for them. Lynas doesn’t need the Conversation’s help, he’s a highly skilled and successful writer.

If the Conversation is doing journalism, they should acknowledge that and have co-author credits, or even pieces written entirely by their writers, and celebrate that. They don’t, because the idea is that it they offer unmediated academic voices. But unmediated academic voices are often the last thing anyone wants, and playing up to that bollocks isn’t doing anyone any favours.

It reminds me a bit of the fuss over Futurity. I worry that the Conversation seems to be more about offering a shine of academic credibility than meaningful interaction between academics and society at large. I’m all for editing academics (I’ve learnt a lot and had my prose improved by many editors myself) but by passing off the work of a professional journalist as written by academics you do both professions – and the public – a disservice.

I’d like to see the Conversation grow, but I want to see it do so honestly.

5 thoughts on “We need to talk about the Conversation

  1. Will Davies

    I’ve just been a bit baffled by the whole thing. I’ve been contacted by them a couple of times, with perfectly pleasant but slightly in-your-face editors or hacks, hoping for very fast responses to stuff in the news. I’d never heard of them when this first happened, but they assured me that the site was already a big deal in Australia, and soon would be over here. On one occasion, the guy hadn’t even bothered to check my academic discipline, and wanted me to offer a *psychologist’s* assessment of Boris Johnson’s speech on IQ. What’s the business model? And who reads it? It all seems a bit murky. And as you say, not at all clear what the rationale is, although given how much UK academics now have to scrabble around for Impact, maybe that’s all it is.

  2. Bill Childs

    I’m not a great fan of the Conversation overall, but the concept as far as I understand it isn’t so much ‘academic journalism’ as it is a more accessible version of an academic journal. At present most academic research is still disseminated using the painfully slow peer-review process and when it is finally published it gets hidden behind a paywall that only students and other academics can generally get around. I think there is a real market for taking all of that research into the public domain in an accessible format.

    There are two problems that need to be overcome for that to work, however. The first is that if you remove peer-review and editing altogether from the process then the final articles will be substandard. There are countless great academics out there with incredibly significant research who nevertheless lack the ability to write in an engaging way for a non-academic audience (and that’s not surprising because research and writing are two different skillsets). That’s why you need to have some form of editing – and in many cases extensive editing that’s going to drastically alter the nature of the text. In fact ideally you need to have established academics doing that editing because that’s the only way to ensure the quality will meet the desired standard.

    The second problem is that many academics still don’t see the value in this style of publishing. Publishing a journal article has a clear impact on your career, whereas (as you’ve written above) there’s a perception that blogging or writing for a site such as the Conversation is a waste of time for established academics. For that reason they necessarily have to be a bit pushy about how they operate – they have to approach academics directly, particularly high profile academics, and encourage them to take part. Until attitudes change and academics view this kind of output as a worthwhile activity then there’s no way around that problem in my view.

    I would argue that we’d all benefit from a transition toward blogging and online publishing being the standard format for articulating the results of academic research (rather than journals). I’m not sure the Conversation has the model down perfectly, but the more sites we have trying to move us in the right direction the better.

  3. Susannah Fisher (@Susannahfisher)

    I also find their distinction of “academic” rather arbitrary. Those of us without a university position but still publishing in peer-reviewed journals are not deemed qualified to write anything “academic” for the site. Lots of great research in the UK goes on outside universities where people are not spending 60-70% of their time teaching, but actually researching 100% of the time.

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