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Academic research should be accessible to all, writes Claire Jackson

Boys perform worse than girls in every school subject – and they have for at least 100 years, claims study.

‘Why dark chocolate really is good for you: stomach microbes turn cocoa into a natural drug that reduces blood pressure.’

‘An aspirin a day keeps cancer away: daily dose advised to cut risk of killer disease.’

The above are headlines published in tabloid newspapers. Such findings, once part of carefully worded research, become meaningless without the appropriate context. Worse still, the latter could be downright dangerous if followed without medical advice.

The general populace relies on the media to translate research, but when – often well-meaning – journalists over-simplify conclusions messages become blurred. Writers are trained to pick out key facts and new information to make stories timely and interesting; however, when it comes to academic research, this is an extremely difficult task. A busy journalist with a copy deadline is unlikely to have time to read a series of research papers thoroughly, and, without support, he or she is left to their own – potentially misguided – deductions. In the fast-paced world of digital publishing, where words are rehashed and regurgitated at speed, misinformation spins perpetually in motion.

In the fast-paced world of digital publishing, where words are rehashed and regurgitated at speed, misinformation spins perpetually in motion

The Telegraph recently called for public access to research and the context to understand it. Most research is reserved for specialist journals; even when the original data is available as open source it’s unlikely to resonate with a lay audience. This becomes a bigger problem when academics receive public or charitable funding: the onus is on the research team to present their findings for a generalist readership. The Telegraph’s James Connington sensibly suggests that academics should provide a secondary, more user-friendly abstract whenever findings are submitted, dubbed a ‘People’s Paragraph’.

Sounds reasonable, right? In reality, if an academic has spent months, sometimes years, on a project it can be very difficult to take a step back; many researchers feel that such summaries might tarnish intellectual value. But just as a good novel becomes a must-read in the hands of a talented editor, so can well-written summaries open up research to new audiences. Presenting technical information succinctly and accurately is a vital step in raising public understanding.

Organisations are beginning to realise that researchers need to engage with the media if we are to make any impact on red-top headlines. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), for example, offers media training for ESRC-funded researchers. The one-day course is in place to ‘help delegates understand what journalists want from researchers, and the news angle of research findings’. The Conversation provides a forum for the research community to disseminate knowledge via short articles, which are made freely available to news outlets. Cancer Research UK provides publicly accessible summaries for many of its clinical trial results.

The Centre for Education Research and Practice (CERP) is owned by AQA, an independent charity. Any money AQA makes through its qualifications is invested back into education, in part through CERP, which provides research evidence to help inform policy and assessment practice. As such, CERP takes its responsibility to share research findings seriously. It’s part of the reason this site – and my job – exists.

But we know that we can do more. That’s why we’re working on a new dissemination strategy that will include wider media work, an online journal, a shiny new website – and those ‘People’s Paragraphs’.

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