Time to leave academic writing to communications experts?

In the Lancet’s 2014 series about preventing waste in biomedical research, Paul Glasziou et al. pointed to “poorly written text” as a major reason a staggering 50% of biomedical reports are unusable [1], effectively squandering the research behind them. According to psycholinguist Steven Pinker [2], bad academic writing persists partly because there aren’t many incentives for scholars to change their ways:

Few academic journals stipulate clarity among their criteria for acceptance, and few reviewers and editors enforce it. While no academic would confess to shoddy methodology or slapdash reading, many are blasé about their incompetence at writing.

He adds:

Enough already. Our indifference to how we share the fruits of our intellectual labors is a betrayal of our calling to enhance the spread of knowledge. In writing badly, we are wasting each other’s time, sowing confusion and error, and turning our profession into a laughingstock.

The problem of impenetrable academese is undeniable. How do we fix it?

In “Writing Intelligible English Prose for Biomedical Journals,” John Ludbrook proposes seven strategies [3]:

  • greater emphasis on good writing by students in schools and by university schools,
  • making use of university service courses and workshops on writing plain and scientific English,
  • consulting books on science writing,
  • one-on-one mentoring,
  • using “scientific” measures to reveal lexical poverty (i.e., readability metrics),
  • making use of freelance science editors, and
  • encouraging the editors of biomedical journals to pay more attention to the problem.

Many institutions have implemented at least some of these strategies. For instance, SFU’s graduate student orientation in summer 2014 introduced incoming students to the library’s writing facilitators and open writing commons. And at UBC, Eric Jandciu, strategist for teaching and learning initiatives in the Faculty of Science, has developed communication courses and resources specifically for science students, training them early in their careers “to stop thinking of communication as separate from their science.” [4]

Although improving scholars’ writing is a fine enough goal, the growth in the past fifteen years of research interdisciplinarity [5], where experts from different fields contribute their strengths to a project, has me wondering whether we would be more productive if we took the responsibility of writing entirely away from researchers. Rather than forcing academics to hone a weak skill, maybe we’d be better off bringing in communications professionals whose writing is already sharp.

This model is already a reality in several ways (though not all of them aboveboard):

  • Many journals encourage authors to have their papers professionally edited before submission [6]. From personal experience, I can confirm that this “editing” can involve heavy rewriting.
  • The pharmaceutical industry has long used ghostwriters to craft journal articles on a researcher’s behalf, turning biomedical journals into marketing vehicles [7]. We could avoid the ethical problems this arrangement poses—including plagiarism and conflict of interest—with a more transparent process that reveals a writer’s identity and affiliations.
  • Funding bodies such as CIHR have begun emphasizing the importance of integrated knowledge translation (KT) [8], to ensure knowledge users have timely access to research findings. Although much of KT focuses on disseminating research knowledge to stakeholders outside of academia, including patients, practitioners, and policy makers, reaching fellow researchers is also an important objective.

To ensure high-quality publications, Glasziou et al. suggest the following:

Many research institutions already employ grants officers to increase research input, but few employ a publication officer to improve research outputs, including attention to publication ethics and research integrity, use of reporting guidelines, and development of different publication models such as open access. Ethics committees and publication officers could also help to ensure that all research methods and results are completely and transparently reported and published.

Such a publication officer would effectively serve as an in-house editor and production manager. Another possibility is for each group or department to hire an in-house technical communicator. Technical communicators are trained in interviewing subject matter experts and using that information to draft documents for diverse audiences. In the age of big data, one could also make a convincing case for hiring a person who specializes in data visualization to create images and animations that complement the text.

That said, liberating scientists from writing should not absolve them of the responsibility of learning how to communicate. At a minimum, they would still need to understand the publication process enough to effectively convey their ideas to the writers.

Separating out the communication function within research would also raise questions about whether we should also abolish the research–teaching–service paradigm on which academic tenure is based. If we leave the writing to strong writers, perhaps only strong teachers should teach and only strong administrators should administrate.

Universities’ increasing dependence on sessional and adjunct faculty is a hint that this fragmentation is already happening [9], though in a way that reinforces institutional hierarchies and keeps these contract workers from being fairly compensated. If these institutions continue to define ever more specialized roles, whether for dedicated instructors, publication officers, or research communicators, they’ll have to reconsider how best to acknowledge these experts’ contributions so that they feel their skills are appropriately valued.

Sources

[1] Paul Glasziou et al., “Reducing Waste from Incomplete or Unusable Reports of Biomedical Research,” Lancet 383, no. 9913 (January 18, 2014): 267–76, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62228-X.

[2] Steven Pinker, “Why Academics Stink at Writing,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 2014, http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Academics-Writing-Stinks/148989/

[3] John Ludbrook, “Writing Intelligible English Prose for Biomedical Journals,” Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology & Physiology 34, no. 5–6 (January ): 508–14, doi:10.1111/j.1440-1681.2007.04603.x.

[4] Iva Cheung, “Communication Convergence 2014,” Iva Cheung [blog], October 8, 2014, http://www.ivacheung.com/2014/10/communication-convergence-2014/.

[5] B.C. Choi and A.W. Pak, “Multidisciplinarity, Interdisciplinarity, and Transdisciplinarity in Health Research, Services, Education and Policy: 1. definitions, objectives, and evidence of effectiveness. Clinical and Investigative Medicine 29 (2006): 351–64.

[6] “Author FAQs,” Wiley Open Access, http://www.wileyopenaccess.com/details/content/12f25e4f1aa/Author-FAQs.html.

[7] Katie Moisse, “Ghostbusters: Authors of a New Study Propose a Strict Ban on Medical Ghostwriting,” Scientific American, February 4, 2010, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ghostwriter-science-industry/.

[8] “Guide to Knowledge Translation Planning at CIHR: Integrated and End-of-Grant Approaches,” Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Modified June 12, 2012, http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/45321.html.

[9] “Most University Undergrads Now Taught by Poorly Paid Part-Timers,” CBC.ca, September 7, 2014, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/most-university-undergrads-now-taught-by-poorly-paid-part-timers-1.2756024.

***

This post was adapted from a paper I wrote for one of my courses. I don’t necessarily believe that a technical communication–type workflow is the way to go, but the object of the assignment was to explore a few “what-if” situations, and I thought this topic was close enough to editing and publishing to share here.

1 thought on “Time to leave academic writing to communications experts?”

  1. Kudos to Iva Cheung (1) for recommending communication professionals as a solution to the widespread problem of incomplete or unusable reporting of biomedical research (2). As members of the Global Alliance of Publication Professionals (GAPP; http://www.gappteam.org), we have gone on record as agreeing with this solution (3) and wish to make three comments on Cheung’s proposal.

    First, communication professionals must be distinguished from ghostwriters. The pharmaceutical industry may have used ghostwriters in the past, but this practice has been considered to be unethical for more than a decade. Evidence suggests that the prevalence has diminished over time and is currently low.4

    Second, there is no need to reconsider how best to acknowledge communication experts’ contributions because organizations representing medical journal editors (5, 6), the pharmaceutical industry (7, 8), and communication professionals (9-11) agree that these contributions must be disclosed. If communication professionals satisfy all four authorship criteria (5), then they should be authors. Otherwise, their contributions should be acknowledged—along with any potential conflict of interest (eg, funding and/or affiliation).

    Third, while we welcome the opportunity to help solve the problem of incomplete or unusable reporting of biomedical research, we must not be viewed as replacements for authors. While biomedical research is usually a team effort, authors must control manuscript content and must be actively engaged in manuscript preparation from beginning to end. Therefore, we prefer to be viewed as communication experts who are available to partner with authors who desire assistance. A critical first step is often introducing relevant reporting guidelines and other best practices, which might be unfamiliar to many authors (12). Other types of assistance can include supporting authors who lack time, experience, or English writing skills; defining an appropriate, efficient stepwise process for preparing and submitting a manuscript to a biomedical journal; managing the project; preparing tables and graphs, and performing other time-intensive tasks; and editing the manuscript for accuracy, brevity, clarity, and consistency with the target journal’s instructions for authors. Regardless of the desired level of assistance, professional communicators collaborate with other team members to encourage compliance with best practices such as ensuring that each author fulfills authorship criteria and is accountable for all aspects of the work.

    Cindy W. Hamilton, PharmD, ELS, Assistant Clinical Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy, Richmond; Hamilton House Medical and Scientific Communications, Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA
    Julia Donnelly, PhD, BPharm, MRPharmS, Principal, Julia Donnelly Solutions Ltd, Ashbourne, Derbyshire, UK
    Art Gertel, MS, President, MedSciCom, LLC, Lebanon, New Jersey, USA; Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Innovation in Regulatory Science (CIRS)
    Jackie Marchington, PhD, CMPP, Director of Operations, Caudex Medical, UK
    Karen Woolley, PhD, CMPP, Division Lead, ProScribe – Envision Pharma Group, Sydney, Australia; Adjunct Professor, University of Queensland, Adjunct Professor, University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia

    References
    1. Cheung I. Time to leave academic writing to communication experts? 2015. (Accessed Feb 23, 2015, at http://www.ivacheung.com/2015/02/time-to-leave-academic-writing-to-communications-experts/.)
    2. Glasziou P, Altman DG, Bossuyt P, et al. Reducing waste from incomplete or unusable reports of biomedical research. Lancet 2014;383:267-76.
    3. Woolley K, Gertel A, Hamilton C, Jacobs A, Marchington J. Professional medical writers: more haste, less waste. 2014. (Accessed Feb 23, 2015, at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24411647#cm24411647_3130.)
    4. Stretton S. Systematic review on the primary and secondary reporting of the prevalence of ghostwriting in the medical literature. BMJ open 2014;4:e004777.
    5. International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. Uniform requirements for manuscripts submitted to biomedical journals: writing and editing for biomedical publication. 2014. (Accessed Feb 23, 2015, at http://www.icmje.org/index.html.)
    6. Committee on Publication Ethics. Responsible research publication: international standards for authors. 2010. (Accessed Feb 23, 2015, at http://publicationethics.org/files/International%20standards_authors_for%20website_11_Nov_2011.pdf.)
    7. Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. Principles on conduct of clinical trials and communication of clinical trial results. 2014. (Accessed Feb 23, 2015, at http://phrma.org/sites/default/files/pdf/042009_clinical_trial_principles_final_0.pdf.)
    8. Graf C, Battisti WP, Bridges D, et al. Research Methods & Reporting. Good publication practice for communicating company sponsored medical research: the GPP2 guidelines. BMJ 2009;339:b4330.
    9. Hamilton CW, Royer MG. AMWA Position Statement on the Contributions of Medical Writers to Scientific Publications. AMWA J 2003;18(1):13-5.
    10. Jacobs A, Carpenter J, Donnelly J, et al. The involvement of professional medical writers in medical publications: results of a Delphi study. Curr Med Res Opin 2005;21:311-6.
    11. International Society for Medical Publication Professionals. Code of ethics. 2013. (Accessed Feb 23, 2015, at http://www.ismpp.org/code-of-ethics-a.)
    12. Marusic A, Hren D, Mansi B, et al. Five-step authorship framework to improve transparency in disclosing contributors to industry-sponsored clinical trial publications. BMC Med 2014;12:197-206.

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