Academic researches are being wasted if the article is not optimized for online readers

Some comments by participants in my ongoing online course in “Writing for the Web” highlight the necessity for academic researchers to optimize their writings for the web audience.

In Week 2 of this course, based on guidelines in the reading materials, course participants need to critique “readability” of five sample online articles. Few people, if any, managed to read an article, Was antebellum America secular? which is a long, academic style article.

One course participant says,

I didn’t read it. Sorry. That’s huge, maybe suits for books, but not for the web. The language is very complex, scientific, it is not for everyone. No way.

Another participant says he did not read the article either, and continues to point out,

You can tell that there is not much if any engagement at all with the readers of this article because there are zero comments although there are over 200 shares via social media.

Mu Lin, course facilitator, expresses his concerns for promoting academic researches in the digital era:

I’m particularly troubled and worried about academic articles such as this one. If it is published in an academic journal, then whoever gets a copy of that journal would “expect” to read articles written this way. Print journal readers are committed readers: they care more about the contents and ideas, much less about the format.

But online, reader habbits are completely different. If this same article is hosted at a subscription-only website, then again they would have “committed readers” who care more about contents than format. However, this article is open-access, and was being promoted on social media networks, then it’s really a waste of the research in it, as it was not optimized for easy reading on computer screens and most casual online readers won’t bother to read through it.

Keith Perch, course participant and a UK freelance writer, then asks this question: “Who did the author want to read his research?” Keith continues to say,

If the answer is: other experts, then there’s not much of an issue here as they are all committed readers and would probably expect to read the article in this format.
If the author wanted a more generalist audience, then he has almost certainly failed for all the reasons stated elsewhere. Certainly, I didn’t get all the way through it!
The fact that it was widely spread via social media, doesn’t necessarily mean that it was getting a general readership.

To emphasize the importance of “easy reading”, Keith says this is how he would rank order online articles that he wants to read:

  1. Interesting, easy to read = 9
  2. Interesting, hard to read = 8
  3. so-so article, easy to read = 4
  4. so-so article, hard to read = 1
  5. not interesting, easy to read = 0
  6. not interesting, hard to read = 0

I also feel that I would read 1, and probably 2, word for word, while I would be reading bits while scanning 3, and skimming/scanning 4, but finding nothing to pull me in, while 5 and 6 would have lost me, probably through the headline and first paragraph.

About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (, a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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4 Responses to Academic researches are being wasted if the article is not optimized for online readers

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  2. keith perch says:

    I agree with your analysis that academic researches are being wasted, but only if there is any value in the research being read by a generalist audience.

    I wonder whether all academics would believe that there was value in being widely read or whether many would think the value is in being read by other specialists in their field?

    As part of the general audience, I believe there is value in wider readership, but I am not sure that the behaviour of many academics suggests that they share that belief. On the contrary, the fact that many publish their work only in academic journals and never put it on to more widely-available websites (such as blogs), suggests that they are not interested in being more widely read or accessible.

    Which makes me wonder whether or not academics – many of whom are publicly funded – have the right to decide that their work should be so inaccessible. I’ll leave that one to people who are far more qualified to answer than me … academics?

  3. Robin Grantham says:


    It depends on what you mean by inaccessible. If you mean that all writing must be written at the 8th grade level (or lower!) then much of the meaning of the work is lost. Academics might be publicly funded or not, but they (we) should be encouraged to write the way we feel best teases out the nuances in the material, not how best suits the average web-scanning, multi-tasking reader.

    • mulinblog says:

      I feel that the writing style should depend on contexts. As we discussed in class, if the target audience is fellow researchers, and the research is being published on an academic journal, then a rigorous research-style writing is appropriate. That said, if the author or researcher is trying to push the same piece through online and social media channels to a more massive audience, then it falls under our scrutiny for a “web-friendly” style.

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