Found in Translation

It's not just accessibility impacting the industry's incorporation of academic research into content development. Understanding scholarly language can be an even thornier issue. Blogger David Kleeman explores.
November 20, 2014

This is the second of two posts about factors affecting industry incorporation of academic research into content development, crowd-sourced from the Children and Media Professionals Facebook group.

Two weeks ago, I covered accessibility; today, I’ll share comments on understanding academic language. This is thornier: access can be solved with money, but journal writing draws from a cauldron of scholarly history and culture, criteria for career advancement, and elemental academic motivators.

An entrepreneur who is also a graduate student (you can tell because he uses “discourse”) captured this last element perfectly: “Academia is all about making teeny weeny little discoveries, or additions to knowledge, or tweaks to existing views. Industry discourse thrives on big picture ideas, like ‘how does a kid’s brain work’. An honest academic would answer ‘in what sense do you mean that,’ and right away put the industry person to sleep.”

Moreover, press attention usually goes to new, headline-friendly works (the quality of that reporting is another column), but the entrepreneur/student noted “that doesn’t really correspond to social-science practice…’current’ isn’t better, or even necessarily corrective.” He added, “What we may need are not translations from fresh research, but from the review papers that emerge every few years in every field.”

Some research publications do engage content creators. TelevIZIon is perhaps more “magazine” than “journal” (published 2x/year in German and 1x/year in English), but its extensive themed issues include a global “research summary” section. The Journal of Children and Media Review and Commentary Editor is usually someone who straddles the two worlds.

Other organizations translate and disseminate plain-English study summaries. The Center on Media and Child Health has a database of topical citations, with original abstracts and lay-focused synopses written in-house. The Dutch subscription-based website Bitescience digests and analyzes studies from a range of fields about “young consumers.”

A former leader in public service interactive media, who just entered graduate school, suggested that it’s not about lay or academic publishing, but fostering both: “Academics could blog more; journal publishers could get more interest in their publications if they took some risks with access policies and format, and industry people could slow down to read and understand the details behind research headlines once in a while.”

One graduate student strives to cover all bases: “I write so that my grandmother (who knows little to nothing about my industry), sister (an undergraduate in an unrelated field), and academic advisor (PhD level) can each understand it and take away the same general message, while allowing each to pull more specific nuances depending on their critical comprehension.”

A research professor who creates global entertainment-education health interventions noted that academia doesn’t always want to be open. By creating walls, physical or linguistic, academics can “continue to feel that they are special.” She pushed against that. “My professional goal – to make research accessible to those who can use it – is one of the reasons why I so enjoy teaching undergraduate biostatistics. Often, I am criticized for not using fancy statistical tests and presenting semi-raw data. I want people to understand findings.”

Still, academic writing has its own context, conventions, language and traditions. As the entrepreneur/grad student pointed out: “…most responsible academic research comes within the context of a theory or a larger body of fairly technical knowledge that isn’t summarized in the typical published paper (any more than an industry periodical remembers that it might have a reader who doesn’t understand ‘SVOD,’ ‘cume’ or ‘share’).”

The director of a Dutch research center agreed. “Theory plays an important role in guiding my research, and I need to explicate this in my papers…Although my methodological sections are typically streamlined and easier to read, I can imagine that the analytic sections may be daunting to individuals unfamiliar with statistics…I try to end with statements regarding the implications of the findings and what this means for media developers.”

In the end, she and her peers must publish in journals their institutions value, in order to gain promotions or tenure. “The number of scientific publications (and location of these publications) along with things such as teaching evaluations and grant money counts much more (in my view) than lay articles…the trick is finding a way to ensure that the time I invest in my non-scientific writing (e.g., writing a report for Cinekid about best practices in app design) can simultaneously benefit my scientific research (i.e., can it fuel a larger research study that I will publish in a scientific journal?).”

Media producers weighed in, as well. All longed for more collaboration across fields, while respecting essential differences. One producer in Canada wrote, “the academic perspective is necessarily different from the creative perspective, and that’s a really good thing. As a producer, I want academics to go where they are most inspired. It’s my job to find the research I need, and read, interpret and figure out a way to use what is meaningful.”

“In general, we producers (despite our credentials) don’t have the kind of analytic mind that academics do, nor (with respect and in my opinion) do most academics have a clue how to create something living, meaningful and beautiful out of the very meaningful research they have produced. (In the early days of Sesame Street, many of the academics thought that putting human beings and puppets together would be too jarring for kids and would confuse them. Thank God, the producers prevailed.)”

A channel executive added, “We use academic research and journals in much the same we work with members of the academy; for their subject matter expertise, to help us put ‘content on the plot line.’ The challenges for me as a layperson are not so much the research findings themselves but knowing whether the research design is something I can trust.”

All in all, there are still obstacles to full and effective communication between academia and industry; however, there are both “workarounds” and emerging, encouraging practices. My friend had a valid point: our time is best spent building from strength rather than harping on weakness.

There may be no more promising sign of desire for collaboration than the enthusiastic, prolific response to my online query. To keep that going – on all topics of mutual interest – please come join our group!

About The Author
Analyst/strategist/writer/speaker David Kleeman travels the world as SVP of Global Trends for kids research consultancy/digital studio @Dubit. Home is an aisle seat near the front. Follow: @davidkleeman.


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