Making an impact with research: (III) silver literature

The staple published output of scholarly and scientific research is journal papers.

The problem with journal papers is that, because they are read mostly by researchers’ own communities, they make little contribution to the impact made by research beyond those communities.

Indeed, they have often been designed to exclude outsiders: that is, journal papers are typically protected by thickets of jargon, esoteric language, and unexplained allusions that ensure that the barbarians (aka the taxpayers who fund the stuff) cannot join the debate.

So, if you seek to make a wider impact with your research, you can’t simply base your strategy on journal publication.

Which ought to be good news, since decades of writing nothing but papers is, if the truth be told, mind-numbingly unadventurous.

So what else should you be publishing? The answer is (depending on whether you write British or American English) grey or gray literature. Unfortunately, that term is just too boring to enthuse people, so I have floated a classier synonym in my sub-title.

If you’re wondering what the term means, it refers to types of texts some of which you will certainly had read and might unwittingly have written. A sample list of the genres of silver literature is available from GreyNet here

Silver literature encompasses the types of texts that people outside research communities do actually read. It follows, therefore, that research communities need to develop their capacity to write (and publish, or get published) silver literature.

And there is some good news here, which is that in addition to the main argument (i.e., the need to reach a wider audience) there are further, more specific, reasons why incorporating silver literature into your repertoire is likely to bring benefits. I won’t articulate them in this post, because I’ve explained them in succinct form here.

Researcher communities have in general been very slow to gear themselves up for writing silver literature. Incredibly, training in the writing  of even such well-established and scholarly central genres as papers and grant proposals is, in many institutions, sporadic. Establishing programmes to develop the capacity to develop silver literature requires, on the part of the institution, nous — which here stands as shorthand for a combination of such qualities as imagination, initiative, and agility.

Pigs. Flying.

If, however, you work in an institution, or part of an institution, that does possess the necessary qualities, you could clean up.

And your colleagues might find, once they can do silver, that life is not only better funded but also more a good deal more creative.


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