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Patricia Leavy, PhD

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How Researchers Are Using Fiction to Make Their Reports Accessible to the Public

Posted: 04/24/2013 4:58 pm

Most research reports are about as interesting to read as car manuals or insurance plans. They're long, boring, inaccessible, jargon-filled and impossible to make sense of. This is how most people feel about research articles across different fields -- medicine, health, psychology, education and so forth -- and with good reason. Honestly, who among us actually reads this stuff?

Here's the issue: because research is too boring and too difficult to read, very few people actually read it. The problem is that much of the research we're not reading is impacting us, or could. Moreover, we may want to be involved in how this information is used or what research receives funding and attention, but it's so inaccessible that we're uninvolved.

In recent years there has been a big push to make research findings more available to the public. The public has become increasingly engaged and aware of a myriad of health and social issues (as a result of Internet-based knowledge sharing). Simultaneously, the hierarchical structure of academic and research institutions has been challenged (with people frustrated at the idea of researchers in 'ivory towers' who seem out of touch and cut off from the communities in which they are enmeshed). As a result, there has been a movement towards using fiction as a vehicle for representing research findings.

If this sounds far-fetched, it really isn't at all. Remember, there is a historical precedent for trying to share information by telling good stories. For instance, in recent decades reporters have shifted their writing style to draw on creative nonfiction as a way of making newspaper articles more interesting. Using literary tools to present research findings also makes a lot of sense for several reasons.

First, people like fiction. In fact, most of us like it so much that we elect to spend our free time enjoying it -- at the movies, theatre or reading novels. Let's face it, two of the most crowded places on any given Saturday are your local movie theater and big chain bookstore (which now include coffee shops because people like to hang out there for as long as possible). The turn to fiction as a way of sharing research findings taps into what many people already elect to spend their time doing. This is also important because exposure to research studies promotes learning (we read studies and learn more about something). Learning isn't a passive activity, and it doesn't have to be miserable either. Learning should be engaged and joyful.

Second, conducting research is resource-intensive. It takes money, time and energy. By using fiction as one way to represent the product of that research, our effort becomes more worthwhile because the distribution of the research findings is maximized.

Third, there is an ethical mandate for making research more accessible to the public. Knowledge shouldn't belong to the few who have highly specialized education but must be opened up for review and discussion among the many. This is a foundational principle guiding the structure of our society from our public school system to public libraries to our democratic political system. We need to find ways to bring sophisticated research studies into the public domain as well.

Researchers across different fields are developing ways to use fiction in different mediums in order to reach broad and diverse audiences and to include more stakeholders in the research process.

For example, healthcare researchers have created theatrical productions about topics ranging from living with mental illness to philosophical questions surrounding genetic testing. When these plays are performed in hospitals, schools and other community spaces, audience members are exposed to new learning, prompted to engage in reflection and/or invited to engage in productive debates about issues such as medical ethics, harmful stereotypes, caregiving, health policy, and medical technology and morality (Jeff Nisker chronicles this work in his 2012 book From Calcedonies to Orchids: Plays Promoting Humanity in Health Policy).

For another example, social scientists are writing novels informed by their research. They are drawing on popular genres like "chick-lit" and mystery in order to share their knowledge about topics ranging from corporate greed to eating disorders to the psychology of dysfunctional relationships and self-esteem. For instance, Sense Publishers, an academic press in the field of education research, is publishing the Social Fictions series which exclusively publishes books written in literary forms but informed by scholarly work. Although the first series of its kind, one imagines there will be more.

Social research is making its way to the silver screen too. Recently the New York Times online edition featured a story about a three-year study out of Bournemouth University in England called "The Gay and Peasant Land Project." Led by sociologist Kip Jones, researchers studied gay identity in older people living in rural areas. Jones partnered with film director Josh Appignanesi to produce the short film Rufus Stone which has since been screened at various festivals and received numerous accolades.

It is clear from even this cursory glance that researchers are developing creative ways to use fiction to make their research available for public consumption and engagement and this seems like a very good thing for all of us.

Disclosure Statement: Patricia Leavy is the editor for the Social Fictions book series.

 

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