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Why One Professor Thinks Academics Should Write ‘BuzzFeed-Style Scholarship’

buzzademiaMark Marino wants to shake up academic publishing. To declare his intentions, the associate professor of writing at the University of Southern California chose a format both fitting and provocative: a BuzzFeed listicle.

Posted on Thursday, Mr. Marino’s piece, “10 Reasons Professors Should Start Writing BuzzFeed Articles,” serves as a “manifesto” for BuzzAdemia, a new journal he’s creating to encourage “BuzzFeed-style scholarship.”

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“As newspapers fall to a new level in the hierarchy of information, people are at least spending some time on other sorts of sites to gather information, whether that’s Reddit or something like Gawker or even BuzzFeed,” Mr. Marino said in an interview on Friday. “This is going to be an important area for academics to engage and try to translate their ideas.”

Rather than creating his own web page to house BuzzAdemia pieces, Mr. Marino envisions publishing them on existing, popular platforms (like BuzzFeed).

“My dream for this is that you eventually get locked in a click-bait loop of scholarly arguments, rather than articles about Disney princesses and what to do in your 20s,” he said.

Once the articles are published, Mr. Marino hopes they will be shared on social media, like the journal’s Facebook page. Scholarly merit will be judged in part on retweets and Facebook likes, he added. After all, as the BuzzAdemia manifesto says, “The RT is the purest form of peer-review.”

Articles approved by the editorial board may eventually be marked by a digital badge of endorsement. Next steps for the board involve identifying existing articles to translate into BuzzFeed-style posts, finding contributors to create original content, and creating documents to explain how to submit articles to popular-media sites.

As an example of the work he hopes BuzzAdemia will encourage, Mr. Marino cites “Post-Structuralism Explained With Hipster Beards: Part 1,” a BuzzFeed piece crafted by Chris Rodley, a graduate student at Australia’s University of Sydney. The post uses images of trendy facial hair to explain semiotics.

“I just wrote it as a bit of a gag,” Mr. Rodley said. “After I did, quite a number of students and academics got in touch online to say, ‘I’ve found it helpful.’”

He used the post to help the students he tutors in a digital-arts class, who had only a week to learn about the complicated concept.

“From my point of view, it can be done to help students but with a bit of a wry sense of humor,” Mr. Rodley said. “Obviously BuzzFeed has found a formula that works for people, that people seem to want to read and find really engaging and really clear.”

In addition to serving students, Mr. Marino hopes the movement will spread scholarly ideas to the public and encourage academics to actually read one another’s work. He points out that relatively few articles published in academic journals are cited in subsequent scholarship, while Mr. Rodley reported that his beard post had received more than 220,000 page views.

“Most of them, I suspect, are not academics,” Mr. Rodley said. “The dissemination potential is exciting to me.”

Anticipating Skepticism

Persuading academics accustomed to writing books to simplify their research into gifs may seem like a long shot, but Mr. Marino believes there’s a precedent for his offbeat idea.

“Academics have a long tradition of distilling their ideas into popular or more accessible forms, from pamphlets to op-ed pieces to appearances on radio or TV shows,” he said. “We can’t let the gaudy garb of most BuzzFeed posts blind us to the potential of this publication venue for the circulation of complex ideas.”

While the social-media response to the announcement has been positive, Mr. Marino and Mr. Rodley anticipate skepticism.

“There are lots of critics who would maybe suggest this is a sign of decline or decreased intellectual standards,” Mr. Rodley said.

But, he explained, the pieces are intended as supplements to original material, not replacements.

And although creating clickable content at no charge for a company like BuzzFeed strikes Mr. Rodley as a little problematic, he has plans to subvert the system: His next BuzzFeed piece will make an original scholarly argument about issues of material labor.

“Using BuzzFeed to articulate your ideas,” he said, “doesn’t mean you can’t simultaneously critique and make fun of the platform itself and its limitations.”

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