How Open is Research?

Back in May last year, I wrote the following words in a column in the ITI Bulletin, “Researchers could discover a way to double efficiency, win new clients and increase translators’ status but, unless those at the sharp end of the profession take an interest, none of this would ever filter down to practice.” Since then, I have had the privilege of taking part in print, online and face-to-face discussions over that very point but the facts have not changed much at all.

As Mike Gulliver points out, the problem goes far deeper than telling people what is out there. Academic publishing, imbalances in power, and even promotion requirements all tip the balance away from people outside of academia being able to have meaningful access to research.

The problem goes much deeper than even that. One of the things that has surprised me the most when writing for language professionals about research is how much work it takes to rewrite, rethink and even resell existing research to make it “accessible”. Taking the abstract of a paper and throwing it onto a professional forum just isn’t enough. In fact, it might even be counter-productive.

If researchers are really committed to opening up research to wider communities, we need to spend a lot of time examining how those communities speak, what values their members hold and what the key debates are. This taps into the fascinating discussion that took place on LifeinLINCS on Deaf-Hearing involvement in research. One of the main points to come out of that was that, for as long as the system is implicitly biased away from Deaf involvement, the onus is on the Hearing academics to open the doors.

Doubtless, much the same argument could be made for translation and interpreting. True, the number of professional translators and interpreters involved in research is far, far higher than the number of Deaf people. Still, it would be naïve to think that, since language professionals can read the language a piece of reading is written in, they can automatically engage with it.

Quite simply, they can’t! For a typical professional to get access to research on, say, ethics, they would most likely have to learn the academic terminology (for things they do every day!), figure out how to get meaningful results from google scholar, subscribe to a journal, hunt down authors, decode mountains of academese and then understand how methods and results affect each other. It’s little wonder that results take so long to filter down, if they do at all!

Academia isn’t exactly outsider-friendly. Of course, co-operative projects like this one, this one and this one will certainly help. When academics and professionals work together, there is added impetus for outcomes to be accessible and open to engagement.

In these days of impact statements and (horror!) required public engagement, co-operation is a good start but more profound shifts might be necessary. Might it be possible, in the near future, for journal articles to be written in language that is academically rigourous and yet still accessible to the wider public? Might there be a case for articles in professional journals, public fora, and even good blogs to count as research publications? Could academics in Translation Studies be brave enough to use the work of language professionals as the starting point of their research?

The issues around research engagement will not go away and resolving them will involve much more than just writing the odd article or doing a workshop. In fact, it seems that research in Translation and Interpreting might need to undergo a massive shift if long-term engagement is to be accomplished.  So where do we go from here?

2 thoughts on “How Open is Research?

  1. Hi Jonathan,

    I think learning to write in accessible language is one thing that we can do immediately. The problem is – and I know I do it myself by, for example, embedding unnecessary clauses within the main sentence and making it ridiculously long – that we are so highly trained as academics to read and understand stuff that is gibberish to average readers, that we don’t even see the complexity that we introduce.

    See what I did there?

    But… I think we need to think about the challenge more fundamentally and honestly. Do we write for academics, for non-academic professionals, for the communities that we interpret for, for those entirely un-churched in academia?

    We may need to transform our writing. Why not write stories? Publish comics? Gamefy (!) information and turn it into apps? Make it an online ‘what kind of interpreter are you’ quiz? Publish in pithy one-liners through the mouths of cats (I iz register matching)?

    But we may also need to transform what we research. Or at least the focus of what we research, so that it speaks to the ‘user’.

    Which means that we probably need to find out what people want us to work on… and take that seriously, and that means that other things–things that we know are important–might not get researched.

    Do we have time for all of this… Is it really useful for us to output something that would be better done by a community insider? Or can we play to our strengths? Is it elitist to assume that we can do everything?

    I’m increasingly thinking that the most effective way to communicate into and out of academia is to recognise the value of all points on a continuum from ‘non-academic’ to ‘very-academic’… and to foster those who can inhabit a ‘buffer zone’ between academics and the community, and build capacity everywhere to mediate knowledge.

    I don’t have any answers… just lots of questions 😉

    • Hi Mike,

      You make some good points. There surely is space for those who can exist in-between “high academia” and “practice”. In a way, it is pretty sad that the two areas are so far apart. I often find that I write differently for a professional audience than I do for an academic one, yet the underlying ideas can be the same. Perhaps this is good practice, perhaps it is a sign that something needs to change.

      Like you, I still have more questions than answers.


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