Are research papers
fit for purpose?


Except for being digitised, research papers haven’t changed much since they began over 350 years ago.

That’s not to say there haven’t been calls for change. Scholars and others continue to debate the function and future of the scientific paper, exploring how open access and potential changes to incentive structures might influence the way research outputs evolve in the future, and the age-old question of: who pays?

Some scholars are right to argue that research communication is already in transition. We see more and more academics experimenting with different research outputs, sharing research via blogs, social media, and using repositories and preprint servers. While many non-traditional activities can be tracked by altmetrics providers, traditional journal impact measures are likely to dominate for as long as they remain tied to incentive structures.

Our research points to several reasons why the traditional scientific paper might not be fit for the future, supporting the drive for a range of research outputs.

Long, text-heavy & full of jargon

Which of the following do you consider are challenges with academic research papers?

Results in tabular format
Response Academics % Students %
Too much to read / papers too long to digest 45 43
Text heavy rather than visual 31 34
Too much use of jargon rather than plain English 29 35
Lack of remote access when off campus 27 26
Confidence the source is trustworthy 26 31
Knowing where to find content in the first place 24 32
Poor search functionality 22 26
Lack of summaries 19 31
Lack of multiple language content 16 23
Lack of accessibility for e.g. visually impaired / hearing loss 16 20
I don’t think there are any challenges with academic research papers 12 6
Other 9 6


'Many articles and journals are so technical with jargon that many people soon switch off. It would be much easier if these were written in plain everyday language that the average person can digest and retain.' Student in Australia

'Sometimes a simple jargon buster is needed, a lot of complicated words have a very simple secondary word which would have been used instead.' Undergraduate student in UK

'Overuse of mathematical equations and calculations resulting in unintelligible outputs'. Academic in Australia

'Sometimes it would be nice to see shorter articles. The requirement for extensive literature reviews and showing that you know what you’re talking about is tedious, and sometimes unnecessary (just seems to serve previous authors). Say what you have found and get on with it.' Academic in USA

'We have to come up with a better way to present and digest article information. Most of us don’t have 20 hours a week to read articles – how we can access the information, identify top articles (and best articles that have not been out long enough for citations to indicate) to help us sift through the irrelevant or poor academic articles.' Academic in USA

'I dislike the pressure from publishers to transfer devices appropriate to teaching (quizzes, boxes, graphics, etc.) to research articles and monographs, where they are not helpful.' Academic in UK

Nearly half of students and academics say that research papers are too long and too text heavy. Another top concern is the use of jargon rather than plain language, particularly for academics in Australasia (38%), India (32%) and North America (49%), and students in China (49%) and the USA (56%).

Other challenges for students include lack of summaries (31% students vs. 19% academics), knowing where to find content in the first place (32% students vs. 24% academics). 23% students see the lack of multiple language research content as a challenge, particularly in China (40%), India (28%) and USA (39%). 16% of academics find a lack of multiple language content a problem, apart from those in Latin America where it’s an issue for 41%.

Having confidence that research is from a trustworthy source is important to both students and academics. 1 in 4 academics (26%) cited trust as a major challenge, with Australasian academics (34%) the most concerned, compared to other regions of the world. For students, trust is a major worry to those in Brazil (43%), China (42%) and Egypt (34%).

A small minority of academics (12%) and students (6%) don’t see any challenges with research papers.

See regional breakdowns of the results for students and for academics.


How students engage with academic content

Which of the following best describes your habits when reading academic content?

Results in tabular format
Response Percentage
I generally read the full article 30
I generally check the abstract first and if it is relevant, I will read the full article 57
I generally only read the abstract 8
I do not typically read academic content 5


Despite its challenges, most students will read a research paper if relevant. Students generally check an abstract first and, if useful, go on to read the full article. However, nearly one third of students will read the full article – and this rises to more than half in India and the USA, but only 10% in Japan.

Students switch off from academic content after 28 minutes.

On average students engage with academic content for 28 minutes before they ‘switch off’. Over a quarter of students in China say they never switch off and students in the USA are more likely to switch off than any other country.


How well do current research outputs translate outside of academia?

Do you think the way research is currently makes it easy or difficult to use outside of academia?

Results in tabular format
Regional breakdown Very easy % Easy % Neither % Difficult % Very difficult % Don't know %
Overall 6 12 21 40 20 2
Australasia 0 6 21 41 19 4
China and Asia 7 25 19 36 13 0
India 8 6 29 38 15 5
Latin America 2 10 16 47 24 0
Middle East & Africa 11 18 22 31 16 2
Europe 3 7 21 44 23 2
North America 1 6 12 47 33 1


Most academics (60%) agree that the way research is currently presented makes it difficult or very difficult for research to be used outside of academia. 32% of academics in China, East Asia and Northern Africa believe that it is easy or very easy for research to be used outside of academia, while only 6% of academics in Australasia and 7% in North America believe the same.

Three in five academics believe it is difficult or very difficult for research to be used outside of academia. Fewer than one in five think it's easy or very easy.

70% of academics in Australasia and 80% in North America agree that it is difficult or very difficult to use research outside of academia, while in China and Asia and Northern Africa just under half agree the same.

The difficulty of using research outside of academia is a challenge that has been discussed in previous Emerald reports. In our Global inclusivity report 2020, academics agreed then that the single biggest way research can become more impactful is through greater knowledge exchange with those outside academia.


Most-wanted content types – students

Top three content types students want to see used more at university [see below for academics].

Results in tabular format
Content type Percentage
Video and animation 32
Traditional books 31
Social media 29
Open research data 26
Video articles/interview 25
Training courses and quizzes 24


Students believe a combination of traditional methods along with technology would aid their learning at university. 26% of students favour the use of open research data (rising to 47% in China) and 25% prefer video articles/interview.

They also think learning could be enhanced through training courses and quizzes (24%), case studies (23%), podcasts (23%), journal articles (23%), infographics (22%), annotated articles (21%), structured abstracts (21%) and games (21%).

Quizzes to test knowledge proved popular in Australia (43%), China (39%), USA (30%) and Europe (23%).

Most students agree that supplementary material alongside a journal article or book chapter would aid their learning. Students in China are most in favour, with 97% choosing this option.

See a regional breakdown of the results


Most-wanted content types – academics

The content types academics would prefer for research presentation (aside from traditional formats).

Results in tabular format
Content type Percentage
Journal articles 59
Traditional books 34
Open research data 31
Training courses 31
eBooks 29
Video and animation 29


Academics would like to see research presented via traditional and new content types. However, they still prefer journal articles over all other formats, with 59% of academics (rising to 64% in India) rating them as ‘very attractive’.

Traditional books continue to appeal to academics, with 34% choosing this option, rising to 43% in Europe. Academics are least keen on early stage synopses (9%) and de-jargoning software (8%). Open research data ranks highly for 31% of academic respondents, as well as 26% of undergraduate/postgraduates.

The tables below show a fuller breakdown for both types of user, and regional breakdowns are also available for students and for academics.

Students: Which of the following content forms would you like to see used more in the future to help you with your learning and make research papers more useful at university? 

Academics: Using the scale of ‘1. Not at all attractive’ to ‘5. Very attractive’, how attractive are the following formats below, as a way to present academic research beyond traditional formats?

Results in tabular format (students)
Content type Percentage
Video and animation 32
Books 31
Social media 29
Open research data 26
Video articles/interviews 25
Training courses 24
Quizzes to test knowledge 24
Journal articles 23
Case study simulation 23
Podcasts 23
Infographics 22
Annotated articles 21
Structured abstracts 21
Game-based learning 21
Apps for books 20
Audiobooks/interviews 19
Blogs 18
Written interviews 17
Scholarly highlights 17
Augmented reality 16
Lay summaries 15
White papers 15
Cartoons and graphic novels 15
Policy briefs 12
De-jargoning software 12
Early-stage synopses 12
None of the above 6


Results in tabular format (academics)
Content type Percentage
Journal articles 59
Books 34
Open research data 31
Training courses 31
eBooks 29
Video and animation 29
Infographics 27
Case study simulation 27
Video articles/interviews 26
Open research formats 26
Social media 24
Structured abstracts 23
Scholarly highlights 22
Game-based learning 21
Policy briefs 17
Annotated articles 17
Augmented reality 16
Audiobooks/interviews 16
Quizzes to test knowledge 16
Apps for books 15
White papers 15
Cartoons and graphic novels 15
Written interviews 15
Podcasts 15
Lay summaries 14
Blogs  13
Early stage synopses 9
De-jargoning software 8


Top social media channels

YouTube as a learning tool is most popular among students in Egypt (92%), India (92%) and Brazil (90%), but least in China (37%), where the country has its own social media platforms. Facebook is the second most popular social media sites for learning and/or research at university, used by 55% of students overall, rising to 82% in Egypt. However, only 11% of students in Japan use Facebook for study.

YouTube is by far the most popular social media channel in helping students learn, with 71% overall using the plaftorm.

Instagram is the third most favoured social media channel for learning, with 54% of students using it overall, rising to 78% in Japan, but falling to 26% in China. Sina Weibo (micro blogging), Weixin (messaging) and Douyin (TikTok) are China’s most popular social media platforms, with 80%, 91% and 85% of students using them respectively.

China and the USA are the only countries without YouTube in their top three.


Students: which social media sites do you currently use to help with your learning and/or research at University?

Results in tabular format
Response Percentage
YouTube 71
Facebook 55
Instagram 54
WhatsApp 46
Twitter 43
TikTok/Douyin 27
LinkedIn 24
Pinterest 24
Reddit 20
Weixin/WeChat 20
Sina Webo 19
Snapchat 18
Tumblr 11
QQ 10


Future trends in social media

Students generally believe that the current social media sites they use to learn and/or research at university will continue to be relevant in the future. Most are open to a range of social media sites, except for students in Japan who prefer YouTube (69%), Twitter (56%) and Instagram (50%).

YouTube is again the most popular platform overall, but is particularly important to students in Brazil, Europe, and India. Students in China are the least likely to use YouTube for learning and are more supportive of their own platforms.

YouTube is the most popular platform to use in the future with 74% of students choosing this, followed by Facebook (52%) and Instagram (50%).

LinkedIn didn’t appear within the top results, as students may not be focusing on their career at this point. However, LinkedIn, along with WhatsApp, may become important for certain regions in the future. USA was the only country to have LinkedIn in their top three, with 66% of students choosing this to help them learn in the future. WhatsApp is popular among 48% of students overall, and although not widely used by organisations to support learning, it could be a worthwhile option to explore.



Top social media channels for sharing research

67% of academics would like research shared via LinkedIn rather than other social media sites. Those in Latin America and India were the biggest fans of LinkedIn where it was selected by 84% and 81% of academics respectively. YouTube is a top 3 platform for all regions, averaging 58% but rising to 75% in Latin America.

Top three social media sites that academics prefer for sharing research: LinkedIn (67%), YouTube (58%) and Facebook (50%).

Twitter and WhatsApp may be important for some regions, with 40% and 34% of academics respectively choosing these options. Instagram and Pinterest fair less well as potential channels for sharing research but may be relevant for some, with 29% and 11% of academics opting for these sites respectively.


Academics: which social media sites would you like to see as a way to share research?

Results in tabular format
Social media site Percentage
LinkedIn 67
YouTube 58
Facebook 50
Twitter 40
WhatsApp 34
Instagram 29
Pinterest 11
Reddit 6
Weixin/WeChat 5
TikTok/Douyin 4
Snapchat 4
Tumblr 3
QQ 2
Sina Weibo 2


Academics: Which social media sites would you like to see as a way to share research?


Impact of COVID-19 on research

Results in tabular format
Indicated change Percentage
Quick dissemination 45
Reduced Article Processing Charges for those in underfunded areas 45
More focus on interdisciplinary research 44


The global research community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been phenomenal. Researchers have collaborated across disciplines and regions, shared research outputs rapidly through preprint servers and open platforms, and fast-tracked peer reviews. Meanwhile, publishers have supported this drive by offering free access to content and reducing time to publication.

Open and rapid sharing of research outputs have undoubtedly helped in the fight against COVID-19. The recent changes to research practice have set a precedent and paved the way to how research might be conducted and published in the future.

We asked academics how information and research need to be presented to further real-world impact. We found that most academics want change within research culture and publishing practices, and have strong ideas over how to progress the sector.

In addition, academics want more open content (43%), greater accessibility to content (43%), and metrics that help to demonstrate real-world impact (41%). 33% of academics want publishers to be more innovative in the content options they offer, 32% want more transparent peer reviews, and almost 1 in 3 (31%) want more choices of research content, beyond the journal article.


Academics: How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the way information and research needs to be presented to make it impactful?

Results in tabular format
Response Percentage
Need for disseminating research more quickly 45
Need for publishers to reduce Article Processing Charges for those in underfunded areas 45
Need to be more interdisciplinary 44
Need to open up more content beyond paywalls 43
Need to make digital content more accessible for all (including those with disabilities) 43
Need to allow greater international collaboration 43
Need for other metrics beyond citation that demonstrate real world impact 41
Need to make digital content more accessible on all devices (including mobiles) 38
Need for other metrics to assess research quality 33
Need for publishers to be more innovative in the content options they offer 33
Need for more transparent peer reviews 32
Need for more choices of format, beyond the article 31
Other  5
None of these 5


See a regional breakdown of participants in this report


Next section: Barriers to innovation

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