Academia, The Last Bastion of Change

Academia_coverWherever I travel, without fail, the people who are most resistant to making the necessary changes to present data more effectively are academics. I wish I was kidding. After all, I used to be one. Some of my best friends are academics. Even the young ones who are on board with better design when they aren’t in the ivory tower tend to balk when I suggest improved slide design or clearer data visualizations for their study. Why are academics so resistant?

Underneath the excuses I hear from them is really one issue: if I don’t present the typical academic way – that is, slides full of bullets and graphs full of confusion – my colleagues will not take me seriously. It isn’t viewed as credible.

Let’s address this issue of credibility.

We actually have lots of ways of determining credibility in the academic world when it comes to data and research:

Reliability

Validity (both internal and external)

Strong methods (both quantitative and qualitative)

Assumptions testing

Rigorous designs

Plentiful options for appropriate sampling

And so on. When we link these things together we build the case for having engaged in credible research. You teach this credibility stuff in your classes and had it ingrained in your head in grad school. ME TOO.

But nowhere in that list does it say:

Present it all in dull tables and bullet points.

It’s just that that’s the way it’s been done around here. That’s just the culture of academia.

Presenting data effectively is a culture changer. It’s a movement toward being understood.

The bullet points are just a comfortable cardigan with elbow patches that appears as a suit of armor which will defend you against criticism.

Breaking away from the cloudiness produced by bullets and tables and moving toward clarity is an act of personal courage.

It means your audiences will accurately judge your credibility based on how they were trained – on your design, your methods, your assumptions. It’s a risk that people will actually understand your study, both its strengths and weaknesses. And that is the point of being an academic – to pursue knowledge and share it with your field.

And anyway, why is it such a big deal in academia to take a risk or show an act of personal courage? Higher education is supposed to be the breeding ground for young, thriving minds, asking hard questions and scrambling for the funding to test it, to try new things, to experiment, and to learn. And besides, most of you have tenure.

The point is, that’s where the credibility lies – in using our hallowed methods to ask new questions and contribute to our collective knowledge. But those experimental results don’t become a part of our collective knowledge unless audiences can digest what academics are presenting.  It’s time for an academic culture change.

Register your department chair for one of my upcoming workshops or anonymously slip a copy of my book in a departmental mailbox.
Image from 
Cawley S, et al. (2004) Unbiased mapping of transcription factor binding sites along human chromosomes 21 and 22 points to widespread regulation of noncoding RNAs. Cell 116:499-509, Figure 1
Pulled from The Top Ten Worst Graphs in Scientific Literature

12 Comments

  1. Love your posts and I couldn’t agree more that a change is very overdue. When I have proposed the sorts of changes you describe, many of my academic colleagues get frightened and say ” if I don’t present those indicators of quality specifically and in detail, it will appear that I didn’t adhere to the expectations. If it isn’t presented, it didn’t happen”. My advice is that you should give an indication that those things were done, but you should seek less tedious ways to do it. Thoughts?

  2. I took the plunge to ditch the boring template and more…and it worked! How? So, once a year in my program, we all have to put on a day-long set of presentations for our advisory board. Our program asks us to use a specific slide template (which, BTW, is very ugly and does not follow any of Stephanie Evergreen’s guidelines on good use of color). I revolted because I’m an evaluator and I thought I could get away with it. I didn’t use the template except in the 1st and last slides (in case someone perused the slide set). I used as many of Stephanie’s suggestions from her book and this blog as I possibly could to liven up the presentation and make it memorable. The result? I got AMAZINGLY positive feedback from my peers (all academics), my director, the board members (all academics) and more! It can be done. I say, just jump in and do it!

    1. Stephanie Evergreen

      Success! Thanks for sharing this hopeful story! Super sly workaround to keep the template on first and last. Love it!

  3. I agree in general. Academics use data visualizations horribly, but you also you have to consider a couple of things. Academics rely heavily on tables because tables are the type of visualization that better serves the overall purpose of science. We use tables when our audience wants to see the numbers, as Few says, and the whole role of academia is to establish credibility by “seeing” the numbers. When presenting to academic audiences, using tables is actually an effective communication method; the audience wants to see the parameters, standard errors, sample sizes, models, etc. precisely to establish credibility. Then they proceed to think about the underlying message, or consequences of the research. This obviously does not apply to general audiences, and that’s when the problems arise, academics have been trained so deeply into this presentation style that they find problems communicating, and so they think that the audience is not smart, or not well-educated, when in reality the audience is not so concerned with the issue of credibility as to understanding the message.
    Another related issue is that presentations don’t have much value if you are a professor. Presenting in 15 minutes in a conference does not help improve research or get published, as much as having somebody reading and commenting your paper. In many cases, academics deal with more complex issues than presenting results from a survey; and explaining results, methods, literature, and theory in 15 minutes to obtain feedback on credibility issues is almost impossible. That’s why many consider presentations as a secondary product. Again, this does not apply for general audiences and that’s when problems appear.

    1. Stephanie Evergreen

      We are in agreement here that presenting to academic peers may warrant tables of details. Table your heart out. But I think that’s a shortsighted view of an academic’s audience. Maybe its different at your university but at mine, academics traditionally had to communicate with the foundation officials and program officers giving them funding, with policymakers using their research for decision-making, and community members they were trying to work with to bridge that university-community divide. And those audiences need a different view of the data.

  4. Hang in there Stephanie.
    What you are asking folks to do does not come naturally to many of them. Change is hard and takes time (and often academics receive modest rewards for innovating when it comes to presenting). However, many do not realize the cost of not innovating, improving their presentation, and having a more significant impact with their students, academic colleagues, and administrators (never mind the outside community). Your job is to make it easy for them to do what you are proposing (infographics and data visualizations). What you do is needed and one day will be a minimum standard and capability or skill. Persistence pays off. Work with folks of like minds and the rest will either follow or be left behind. If any of us knew really how much work it would take to introduce new ideas and make them stick, we would never even have attempted it. Keep up the good work and do not be daunted by the task ahead.

    1. Stephanie Evergreen

      I appreciate the encouragement, David! I’m thankful to have universities in my client roster on a regular basis.

  5. Hey Stephanie,
    I love your work and this post in particular really resonates with me. I’ve been trying to share your great information with colleagues. In a recent presentation I gave where I talked briefly about fonts (or typeface) and someone asked what type of font they should use for numbers, specifically numbers that are part of a table. I didn’t see that covered in the font section of your book. Do you have any general tips? Thank you!

    1. Stephanie Evergreen

      Google this is the short answer but you are really looking for fonts where the 1 looks different from a lowercase l or an uppercase I. Otherwise, it would depend on whether the numbers are on screen or paper, which is covered in the book 🙂

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