A Measure of ‘Readability’


by Courtney Quirin

Tim Ritchie

In the autumn of 2011, Tim Ritchie of the University of Limerick began a long process of chronicling his “impact”, a muddled concept at the center of an on-going debate— what exactly is a standard measure of one’s impact? Pulling together a suite of metrics, including citation counts from multiple sources and evidence of his readership from Academia.edu, Tim proved to his tenure and promotion committee that he isn’t just doing his research in vain; people are actually reading and citing his work. As a result Tim was awarded tenure.

Through the grueling process of his tenure application, Tim not only learned about the powers of different metrics to show impact; he also discovered a way to judge the “readability” of his own work. As a potential precursor to a readability metric, Tim thinks tracking how his document views vary across papers could tip off researchers and academics on how to better communicate with, and educate, the public.

"Through Academia.edu, I’ve started seeing how many views my papers are getting, and then I start considering the ones with lower views— are they too technical or too dense?" says Tim.

"If it’s really readable,” he adds, “that means someone with an 8th or 10th grade education would have no problem reading along. If it’s technical and scientifically dense, that might lower the readability and might not be a winner in the public eye."

Lingering on his mind for some time now, the issue of readability has made Tim step back and assess his work, his role as an educator, and his growth as a writer and academic.

In regards to the role of academics, Tim says, “The point really is, is that we’re essentially educators. Who are we educating? Should it just be the university community or should it be the wider community?” Tim’s answer: “It should be the wider community.” Consequently, as Tim progresses in his career, he grows more and more aware of the importance of making his work, and academic research in general, accessible to anybody who is interested.

Researching the memory people have about their own lives, a fairly accessible topic outside of the university setting, Tim likes to test the readability of his work on his friends and family.

"When I show my published articles to my dad and my grandma, they like the introduction, but then they trail off when it gets too technical."

The public’s interest in his research, but their inability to fully comprehend his work, has raised a serious question for Tim— “How does a new-career researcher get good at doing both, appealing to the public and the academic community?”

Considering that publications must be of a high quality to pass through the “gatekeepers” of the peer-review process, the underlying question of Tim’s quandary is: can a publication be of high quality without being too technical, and consequently more accessible to a broader audience? Tim thinks that this feat is possible, but will require some trial-and-error and fine-tuning of his writing, something that his Academia.edu document views can help him with.

"I think it’s a matter of time and being asked questions by the non-science community that we get practice at making our work more accessible, in terms of readability, to whomever wants to learn about the topic,” he says.

One stand-out example of bridging the academic-public divide is Tim’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Gender and Society. Since Tim has a background in social psychology, he reached out to the editors, who were sociologists, and was selected to write an entry on gender bias in research, a topic that normally doesn’t fall within his realm of research.

As his most viewed document (by far) on his Academia.edu profile, this hybrid form of writing started to brew thoughts on readability.

“I had no idea that just posting it on Academia.edu would result in so many hits. Because it was written for an encyclopedia, there are no statistics in it. It’s really just a plain English-text document. It’s very readable, or at least that’s what my analytics tell me; they give me a clue that this is probably the most readable thing I have out there,” says Tim.

Seeing his once-few document views grow to over 3,000, Tim finds this kind of feedback gratifying, and inspiring, on a very basic and personal level.

“Five years ago that kind of feedback was unavailable, and you were left really just wondering if anybody reads this stuff at all. There really wasn’t any incentive to please an audience. But now, on a personal level, that’s actually there. It’s inspiring as writer!”

Tim anticipates that this new kind of readability metric will also help him when it comes to the “business-side” of science writing.

“Granting agencies need to know, ‘if we’ve funded you in the past, did you publish anything? And, if you published something, did anyone read it?’ That’s a new facet of the whole grant application process: to include some evidence that people are reading your work. That’s why Academia.edu is potentially very, very useful to build confidence in yourself, in your team, and in your potential granters.”

As newly tenured faculty member, Tim adds, “that, for me, is the next chapter.”

Academic Bio:

Tim Ritchie is a lecturer at the University of Limerick where he studies mental health and well-being through the lens of social cognition. Much of his research focuses on the interactions between the self, emotions, and autobiographical memory (i.e. long-term memory associated with life events).

Tim’s work can be viewed here.


by Courtney Quirin, Science Writer

Comments Feb 28, 2013
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