For several years now the role of experts in society has been under fire. In 2016, Michael Gove said the people and the country had had enough of experts, he seemed to touch a nerve and reflect, if not the opinion of the majority, then certainly an element within the popular consciousness. So what if Brexit appeared to almost every expert to be an objectively bad decision on economic, political, and social grounds? If the people felt they wanted it, the experts should just stand aside. It mimicked a more entrenched attitude in the United States, where feelings have been placed above facts by the right-wing media and politicians in particular for several decades now. In this way, arguments against political reform based in fact could be put at arms length simply because they didn’t feel right.
Seemingly in opposition to this, The Conversation celebrates experts and academics, calling on them to explain the current stories of the day. This is intended to present a more nuanced and educated position than a standard journalist. Their website states that their aim is to ‘help rebuild trust in journalism.’ To achieve this, they ‘only allow authors to write on a subject on which they have proven expertise, which they must disclose alongside their article.’ In practice, the disclosure and its pretence towards openness is at best a boast about the writer’s previous works, helping to promote their own publications. At worst, it illustrates the esoteric and often extremely niche nature of modern academic research, providing further evidence to people like Gove that academics are embedded in their ivory towers.
‘To be published by The Conversation you must be currently employed as a researcher or academic with a university or research institution.’ PhD students supervised by an academic may also write for the site, but not masters students. Immediately then we encounter a significant and quite arbitrary barrier to entry. A first year PhD student, whether they are straight out of a BA or not, is allowed to sign up as an author (whether they will be published is of course a different matter). But a masters’ student who may have completed their dissertation but is not in a PhD programme cannot.
An increasing number of PhD graduates are employed in academic-adjacent roles at a university, without necessarily receiving the appellation of researcher or academic: adult learning, academic writing, teaching a language as a foreign language to name a few core modules that exist outside of main lectures and seminars. Particularly in the west, these are becoming essential to the success of a university system that increasingly relies on wealthy students from abroad to pay exorbitant fees, but the staff that teach these classes are often not regarded as researchers or full academics.
An email address from a research institute or university is required to verify your profile as an author. In addition to the teaching staff referenced above, this will exclude many precarious academics who may work on an hourly or semester basis and are not assigned an email address or their institution’s email address may be deactivated within weeks of completing their PhD or contract. So, at the point where an individual may come to have more time to contribute to The Conversation, they are excluded from it. There is also no room for contributions from a PhD graduate who may be on a break or have left the field. In these ways, The Conversation recreates the same issues of tenure outside the academy.
The purpose of the organisation is to rebuild trust in journalism, but few if any of the academics writing for The Conversation will have studied journalism or writing. The Conversation does employ many people from a traditional journalism background, but only as editors. A two-tier system of contributor and editor reflects the administration of university departments.
It is assumed that academics who wish to contribute implicitly understand journalism, communication, storytelling and so on, but journalists do not understand or are not capable of researching and reporting news or writing opinion pieces with the necessary insight to be worthy of The Conversation.
Although most academics publish throughout their careers, the vast majority of academics are never actively taught how to write. Rather, they learn from doing. Their success or failure is not necessarily based on their skill or clarity but simply their output. In contrast it seems that regardless of a journalist’s experience or publication history they are excluded from contributing to anything other than the blog section, which is not (or at least no longer) linked at the top of the page.
The proudly displayed creative commons license button, which allows anyone to republish the article as long as they ‘do not edit the piece, ensure that you attribute the author, their institute, and mention that the article was originally published on The Conversation’ is another fairly meaningless gesture. In the field of journalism it’s accepted that articles may be quoted in another publication (though republishing is less common it is certainly not unheard of).
Allowing another publication to use the article in whole, as long as they state where it was originally published, is just free publicity for The Conversation. It can only be considered impressive in light of the scandal that is academic publishing, where the simplest book review or letter to the editor still regularly commands a fee of over $1000 from the author or their institution to be made open access, and full-length articles generally cost over $3000.
The same can be said for the disclosure statement, which although occasionally useful, is generally redundant as the majority of articles simply represent opinion pieces reacting to the day’s news. As a result, they do not refer to medical trials or the pharmaceutical industry or other sensitive fields (though admittedly the disclosure is welcome if it applies in those cases). However, as the bulk of the contributors are from the humanities it is not surprising that, for example, an academic who studies literature has no shares or does not work (directly) for the British government. What is notable is that their home institution is listed as a funder below the byline if they donate to The Conversation. Hence, the disclosure statement is in effect a red herring; it purports to illustrate impartiality, when in reality the contributor receives a clear benefit from contributing as they promote their institution and vice versa.
Further evidence of this benefit is provided in the form of edited book extracts from the author’s own publications. This shifts the nature of the promotion from passive to active. The disclosure statement still remains, but can it truly be said that the author does not benefit from the publication when in fact they are promoting a publication that they want the reader to buy? At least in the conventional academic setting, book reviews are written by someone other than the author!
Similarly, academics on fellowships have a contractual requirement to disseminate their research as widely as possible. They may not be hiding a funding partner who supported their research, but they are receiving funding from an organisation that would benefit from public acknowledgement and the article being published.
In general, articles appear to be around 1000 words in length – nothing like the in-depth missives found in academic journals, or even the popular ‘long read’ format of many magazines and newspapers. How much specialist knowledge is needed to report on these topics is immediately questionable due to this short form. Consider this review of George Monbiot’s recent documentary (https://theconversation.com/apocalypse-cow-documentarys-vision-for-the-future-of-food-could-leave-farming-in-the-past-129631).
Other than the writer’s own personal experience, there is nothing here that is not covered in the documentary itself or could not be found by a competent journalist in a couple of hours. We are invited to believe, based on the organisation’s mission statement, that having an academic write this article conveys weight and knowledge that is not available to a journalist. But the knowledge involved is the benefit, or should I say, the requirement, of the writer’s job.
It is only a unique insight in the sense that the walled off world of research prevents these connections from being more common. Equally, however, it seems impossible to believe the CEO in question within the article would not have provided an interview to an interested journalist if asked. Therefore, this personal reflection is redundant.
You may say, this is just a review, it’s not supposed to be a detailed report on the field as a whole. Very well then; but what about this article by a historian about the ongoing British monarchy scandals? (https://theconversation.com/prince-harrys-decision-to-step-back-from-the-monarchy-is-a-gift-to-republicans-129624) All the sources cited are news outlets, save the Encyclopedia Britannica. The use of news sources shouldn’t be surprising when we consider that The Conversation obviously wants to be part of the current affairs narrative, and thus there isn’t very much time for academic research or dreaming up obscure relationships between current events and historical precedents. The irony of The Conversation is that although academics put themselves front and centre, they depend in most cases on journalists to do the research for them.
The opportunity to knock out a quick 800 to 1500 word article on a topic of tangential interest to your research, which receives hundreds or occasionally thousands of reads or social media shares is seductive, especially relative to the hard work that goes into writing academic papers, the long peer review and publishing process, which generally leads to a few dozen reads months or possibly years later. It is therefore not surprising that many academics would look to write for an outlet like The Conversation. But by presenting itself as a beacon of facts in the face of disinformation, The Conversation has actually recreated the worst problems of academic departments.