Readers want academic expertise

Readers want academic expertise

In May of this year, SAGE publishing took a step that was part gamble, part experiment. As discussions over lockdown policies dominated the global conversation, Professor Stephen Reicher emerged as one of the most authoritative voices in the field, through his work with the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (or as we call it, 'the other SAGE'). Reicher was a contributor to Together Apart: The Psychology of Covid-19, a book we had originally scheduled for publication in October. 

We took the decision to release a free, uncorrected proof of the book on the community site, Social Science Space, with the aim of prioritising the public’s need to know the facts, where politics so often seeks to camouflage and obscure. To date, the manuscript has been accessed over 48,000 times.

The widespread take up of an academic publication was gratifying, but it confirmed what we’d suspected at SAGE: in an age of memes and misinformation, there’s a huge countering hunger for books that are serious, in-depth and written and produced by, yes, experts.

In recent years trade publishers have seen massive success with the likes of Yuval Noah Hariri’s Sapiens, Tim Harford’s How to Make the World Add Up, and Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women. These are serious books tackling big systemic issues and drawing on academic expertise. 

It is thought in some circles that accessible, trade publishing and academic rigour don’t mix: in academic publishing, there is a wariness of the “X changed the world” (Cod; Christianity, Spanish Flu); academia can be seen by trade publishers as narrowly focused, overcomplicated and, as a result, lacking in commerciality. 

But there is no real reason why complexity should be sacrificed to accessibility. 

In the social sciences, where widespread understanding of the latest thinking on current issues is of particular importance, we believe there is an opportunity to provide high quality, rigorous academic content that focuses on specific issues, rather than course curriculum as in traditional academic textbooks. 

SAGE’s response to these challenges has been to launch the What Do We Know and What Should We Do About...? series, which takes critical social science topics, such as immigration, inequality and social mobility, and breaks them down into simple concepts. This enables the reader to firstly understand the current literature, and secondly, to gain an insight into some recommendations by a prominent expert in the field. Rather than a weighty textbook, each book in the series is designed to be read in about the time it takes to complete a train journey.

Polity is another independent academic publisher that has recently sought to bridge the divide between experts and the public. In June, they published a short book on Covid-19 by the EiC of the Lancet, which scrutinized governments’ responses to the pandemic. The book was written and priced for a broad, public readership. Other individual titles Polity has published cover topical issues such as the case for a jobs guarantee, combatting modern slavery; and devastation of industrial farming. 

On the trade side, Penguin is a heavyweight in non-fiction trade publishing, and publisher of some of the most famous science books, from the ultimate experts of all time: Stephen Hawking and Neil De Grasse Tyson. These books lean towards “making science sexy”, elevating scientists into superstars and stimulating the public’s imagination. However, the focus of such titles tends to be on hard science. Authors in what could be arguably called social science subjects – ‘politics, philosophy & culture’ –  make strong arguments and bring sharp critical thinking to their subjects, but they are predominantly journalists rather than scholars. 

Academic expertise has rarely been so important or so devalued as it is today. The world’s leading experts on the most pressing issues of our time are often overlooked, or thought of as hidden in journals and academic studies. 

Now is the time for publishers to do their bit to surface research and expertise that can explain, define and even change society for the better. We must take seriously our role in fighting misinformation and not under-estimate the public’s appetite for well-researched, grounded content. Crucially, we must seek and amplify diverse voices, so that we can understand the nuances of society from all angles and viewpoints. 

There is still much to be learnt about the best way to engage the public with society’s most pressing issues, by both academic publishers and non-fiction trade publishers alike. By taking risks, experimenting with different formats and publishing quickly for timely impact, we have an opportunity to live our values and make a real difference to society. The work we are doing in this area will help to bridge the divide between academic rigour and public interest. This, we believe, is the future of expertise. 

Katie Metzler is associate vice president, social science innovation at SAGE.