Making research accessible: Is academic journal writing the way forward? (Dr Christian Barton, SEMRC) #LTUacwrimo

Photo by Aleksi Tappura |
On March 6 1665, in the first academic journal ever published, Henry Oldenburg wrote that academic journals were established so that researchers could "impart their knowledge to one another, and contribute what they can to the Grand design of improving natural knowledge, and perfecting all Philosophical Arts, and Sciences."

An enormous profitable industry has grown on the back of Henry Oldenburg and his colleague’s innovation in the past 350 years. As a result, researchers continue to be ineffective at translating knowledge based on their evidence because this profitable model is not effective. 

A researcher’s work ethic cannot be questioned. To publish an academic journal paper requires hard work and a number of steps:
1. Develop research question and methodological design
2. Complete the research and analyse results
3. Write the results of the research findings into a report
4. Have this report scrutinised by peers and an editor of the academic journal 
5. Address any concerns raised during peer review process
6. Fill out a swath of paperwork to sign over all copyright to the publisher

Most of this work is not funded by the publisher. For the publisher, the author is free, peer reviewers are free, and academic editing in most cases in largely free. This clever business model drives average profit margins across all major publishers of academic journals, in the order of 35% on approximately US$9.2 billion revenue annually.

Ironically, universities already funding salaries of the authors creating journal content also pay the publishing companies to access their employees work. The ethics of this publishing system and how it can be improved is hotly debated (see the Wall Street Journal piece here). More recently, many academics have pushed for ‘open access’ publications to improve the reach and knowledge translation from their work. However, someone still needs to pay for the author’s time, journal production, and publishing costs. Therefore, under an ‘open access’ model, costs will still be covered by academic institutions or the authors themselves. 

Despite obscene profits, academic journals are in the most part, ineffective at translating knowledge. The large dependence on them for trusted information may be the key reason for ineffective knowledge translation in my field of Sports Medicine. It is estimated that there is a 17 year lag between the completion of a research study and translation of this new evidence into the practices of medical professionals. Even then, it is only partially translated.

What are the barriers?

In order to identify potentially successful innovations for knowledge translation, we must first understand the barriers. I have been involved in a range of pilot studies exploring barriers and facilitators to knowledge translation for Sports Medicine practitioners. This research consistently identifies three key barriers, in addition to journal access, which impede knowledge translation in Sports Medicine:

1. Comprehension: Medical professionals don’t always understand all the information contained within academic journal articles due to the use of scientific writing formats and style (jargon). If this is the case, patients definitely won’t

2. Unengaging content: Most medical professionals we have interviewed in previous research say the content is very dry – typically large slabs of text with minimal images – meaning they rarely read all the content contained in the academic journal article.

3. Time restraints: The time required to acquire knowledge from academic journal articles is enormous, and not feasible for a busy medical professional. There are an immense number of lengthy publications each year – typically 3000 to 5000 words. 

Considering the significant profits journals generate, it could be argued that it is their responsibility to drive new innovations which address these barriers. If they don’t, they may very well go in the same fiscal direction as print media has recently. After centuries of rising profits, print media has seen a catastrophic and rapid fall since the rise of digital multimedia and social media innovation. Similar innovations are beginning to be used by medical professionals for sources of new research evidence. Late adopters may simply be left behind, particularly if universities and governments suddenly realise how inefficiently their money is being used.

Importantly, the responsibility for a shift in the publishing model should not shift entirely to journal publishers. Researchers also have a responsibility to improve how well their work is translated into practice. There is a saying “if you didn’t publish it, you didn’t do it.” Additionally, this could be extended – “if you don’t translate it, there was no point doing it.”

This is part one of a two-part blog exploring the accessibility of academic research and writing. Part two of Christian's blog explores the ways in which social media can help knowledge translation and making research accessible. 

Dr Christian Barton is a post-doctoral researcher at La Trobe’s Sport and Exercise Medicine Research Centre (SEMRC), where he is the Chief Editor of their research blog. Dr Barton is also an Associate Editor at the British Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy in Sport, and has a strong passion for research translation to clinicians and patients.