Anyone who has had the experience of thrashing through a highly technical journal article, bouncing from sentence to sentence desperately searching for some kind of conceptual foothold, can tell you that academics can oftentimes be downright unintelligible to anyone outside their discipline.
Last spring, UBC introduced new guidelines for master’s theses and doctoral dissertations with the goal of making academic writing more understandable for a general audience, part of a broader effort within the UBC graduate school of bridging the often sizeable gulf between academia and the “real world.”
“We were concerned about students being able to explain what they did to the person in line at Safeway,” said Dr. Susan Porter, dean and vice-provost of the UBC graduate school.
The May 2017 guidelines now stipulate that all master’s theses and doctoral dissertations must include a “lay abstract” that describes the research in terms that members of the general public without any technical knowledge can understand.
All the abstracts can be found online on the UBC Library’s Theses and Dissertations database; all dissertations submitted after April 2017 include a lay abstract.
Porter described a number of reasons for the new requirement, chief among which is the fact that, as they study at a public institution, UBC graduate students have a responsibility to be as transparent as possible with the taxpaying public about their work and its contributions to society or the state of knowledge in their field. Including an easily-understandable summary with all theses and dissertations is one way of better fulfilling that responsibility.
Additionally, according to Porter, the lay abstract requirement will also help better prepare graduate students for their future careers. Such abstracts are commonly required in grant proposals and even in submissions to some academic journals, so the more experience students can get in writing them now, the better they will be served farther on down the line.
With this new policy, UBC joins a number of other universities that have introduced similar requirements in recent years.
While there are no specific requirements stipulating how to format the lay abstracts, Porter is adamant that they should not “dumb down” complicated research, but rather, make it more easily accessible to those without a technical background.
Making graduate-level work more accessible while staying true to its nuance can, no doubt, be a difficult balancing act, but it is hoped that working to strike that balance will prove to be a valuable exercise that will lead students to reflect on their work from an alternate perspective and perhaps gain some new insight into its place in the world at large.