Blog post

Why do we write? The importance of academic writing in research

The #MadeAtUni campaign, launched in December, is popping up all over Twitter, highlighting just how many incredible breakthroughs come out of teaching and research carried out at universities. Dr Stuart Archer, Researcher Developer at the University of Derby, looks at why academics need to communicate their research - and why academic writing is so important.

By Stuart Archer - 24 January 2019

Let's start by taking a step back and asking another question - are you reading this blog via the internet? In most cases, the answer is probably yes. The internet, or, more accurately, the technology that underpins it, is a prime example of why it's important to communicate research.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is the most well-known name associated with the history of the internet, and was certainly instrumental in its inception. He didn't invent everything to do with the internet, however. Much of the technology already existed in government and university research labs around the world, waiting for someone with the right vision to come along and link them all together. This wouldn't have been possible unless this work had been written down and published for all to find.

"If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants" - Sir Isaac Newton

It may seem obvious, but this is one of the key principles behind any kind of research. Whether you are trying to find a cure for cancer, unpick the secrets of the universe or simply find out how to cook a different type of quiche, that vast repository of existing human knowledge can show you where to start.

In order to do something new and original, you need to know what people have done before you, so that you can build on it. Even Einstein's ground-breaking work on relativity, as famous as it made him, was re-imagined from other renowned physicists' work, such as Hendrik Lorentz and Hermann Minowski.

It's not just of benefit for other researchers. One of the main reasons for writing up academic research is to persuade someone that the conclusions from your research are correct. A sticking point for many researchers (myself included) is that the writing process is often seen as separate to research itself.

This may be more of an issue in the physical sciences or disciplines with a large amount of field work. You might be collecting results in a lab or in the field to write up later, whereas in many of the humanities, research and writing tend to go hand in hand. Writing about your research can help you criticise existing results, pick out any gaps in your evidence or argument that need to be filled, or simply just help organise your thoughts.

"Research isn't research until it's written down" - Anon

There is also the matter of accountability. A large proportion of research carried out in the UK is funded by public money, which is accounted for by the Research Excellence Framework (REF). One of the principles behind the REF is "open access" - research should be made freely available to the public and not kept behind inaccessible paywalls.

Open access and open research could form the topics of several blog posts, but fundamentally it comes down to ensuring research is communicated freely and transparently. Which, of course, leads us neatly back to writing!

Why people find writing so challenging

If you mention thesis writing to most research students, odds are this will bring them out in a cold sweat. The prospect of any kind of academic writing can bring out stress and anxiety in the best of academics. Everyone will have different reasons why, but there certainly are a few common themes.

One of the biggest concerns is that you are putting your professional opinions out for scrutiny by other academics and the wider world. You need to have the evidence and research to back it up, all presented coherently and formatted neatly, taking into account all of your discipline's idiosyncrasies in style, with the right tools to hand, and enough time to do it.

Time is a big factor for many academics, particularly those who are heavily responsible for teaching, as finding a slot in your timetable to sit and write up your research can be extremely challenging. Being able to write both with speed and quality takes a lot of practice - which is going to be even more difficult if you are short on time.

There is also a huge variation across universities in both the quality and content of how undergraduate and postgraduate students are taught how to write academically. It's not unheard of to find people who have written their doctoral thesis, who are now publishing in journals as a researcher, that have never had any formal academic writing education at university.

What we are doing to help

In November, we took part for the first time in WRITEfest2018 - a collaborative celebration of academic writing between a number of universities around the world. It is designed to promote skills and good practice in academic writing, and to get academics away from their desks and just "shut up and write".

As part of this, we ran masterclasses to help researchers with writing strategies to better structure their writing, making use of short blocks of available time. We have run workshops on specific styles of academic writing, such as bid writing, publications in journals and books. This is in addition to workshops for our research students and a 12-week academic English module mainly aimed at international students.

We have also blocked out protected writing time slots so researchers can put the skills from these masterclasses into practice. The overall goal is to help remove the barriers to writing, so researchers can more easily communicate the great research they are doing with the wider world.

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About the author

Stuart Archer
Former Researcher (Researcher Development)

Stuart Archer is the former Lead for the Researcher Development Programme at the University of Derby. He is also a research chemist by training.