Happy birthday, The Conversation.  It’s with some envy that I’ve watched you grow and I applaud your success to date.  Had you been conceived earlier, I’d be on your side of the fence – as a writer –  not just as a reader.  But I left academia just before you started and, try as I might, I can’t get an academic email address back so I can write for you.  So here I am, writing for me, to you.  You’ve done very well so far, especially for a 6yo.  But there’s much for you to learn.  Let me explain.

Academics writing for an intelligent public

It’s been wonderful to see how academics can write interestingly enough for the intelligent public.  Putting research evidence and deep experience  out there on current topics, every day (approximately 3,500 articles a year), informing and influencing public debate.  That was always my preferred style and desire.  But, when I was an academic, that was positively discouraged!  I remember when I told a peer professor about all my textbook  and newspaper article publishing, she poo-pooed them.  They didn’t count at all in academic quality, she said.  Those days are coming to an end, thank goodness.

And I know that this journalistic style of writing is actually difficult for academics accustomed to stuffy, A-journal writing requirements.  But it’s much more valuable to influence public thinking, as policy is being developed.  So the many writers have done well to adapt, to grow and to be influential, right now.

International expansion

And you’ve managed within this short time to expand to several international editions, based on this format.  A great example of the quality of what we develop right here in Oz!

Setting high standards

It’s also excellent to have potential individual conflicts of interest explicitly acknowledged and neatly simple to have university emails as the criteria for writing quality.  This gives the university direct responsibility for the quality of what is written as well as the cudos from being named with each article.  Headlines have become very catchy too, but then that has been a requirement for successful publication in the journals now for a while too.

Learning for the future:  Improving your impact

But I’ve noticed, my little 6yo, that there’s one academic habit that still remains.  The inability to make a decision about what’s best for the future, what is likely to happen and whether that is good or bad.  There remains that sense of ‘more research is needed’…which is not what the reader wants.

So often I find myself reading an article with great interest, learning the background behind the issue, learning the chronological development of the issue to date.  but when I come to the ‘so what?’ or ‘what to do?’, I find the articles often let me down.  ‘It will be interesting to see how the issue develops from here’  is often the nub of the end of an article.

Which is very frustrating.  You guys are experts in your fields.  You are ‘professors’ ie people who pronounce about issues.  Use that expertise to give us your views about what should be done, or what will happen or whether that is good or bad, and why.  People want advice, from experts.  You have the background knowledge, the expertise, the skill to sort out the arguments.  Be proud to pronounce.  Influence the debate.

I’ll watch your development closely till your next birthday.  I’m sure you will grow and mature more.  But take it from someone who’s been there.  If you don’t pronounce your expertise, people will turn to someone else.  Happy birthday, The Conversation.



  1. Thanks Graham for bringing this 6year old to my notice – I have just joined its readership. And thanks also for giving me the opportunity to suggest that it is a wiser six year old than you imply.

    Our six year old friend plays host to those authoritative AND articulate commentators in ‘various fields of knowledge’. This makes intelligent ‘lay readers’ feel they are in a safe enough environment to ‘converse’ so as to conjure with possibilities and conjectures over the implications of such knowledge.

    Is it not logically, morally and politically a separate step to engage in policy prescription? Such steps require us citizens to engage in potentially constructive and destructive debates, all within the safe environment that the ‘Conversation’ offers?

    Privately owned media [eg.The Australian] offer very high quality journalism that fails in precisely this separation of knowledge and prescription. Instead, such mass media have now been tainted with the accusation of propaganda – however well founded their research – and much of it is well grounded if partial. The outcome is the ‘Tower of Babel’ that now faces us especially in the USA.

    I would like professed experts to distinguish the possibilities and the policy prescriptions from the analysis of the current actualities. I dont want them to tell me what must be done [no TINAS* for me] – but to explain the ‘might be done’s’ that the actualities offer.

    * TINA=There Is No Alternative


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