Brainstorm: Where academics write interesting articles in plain English

RTÉ’s platform for new ideas and perspectives is academic lead but reader friendly

One of the most surprising things about the last nine months has been the lack of tweed. I’ve met hundreds of academics and researchers since I started editing RTÉ’s Brainstorm project last September and I think I’ve come across just one lad rocking the tweed look. For the record, it should be noted that he rocked it well.

Instead of the clichés, Brainstorm has unearthed a different dataset from academic life. The people we’ve been working with and publishing are savvy, smart, colourful, diligent and precise. Contrary to expectations, they can also write in plain English, which is a hugely welcome development.

But let's back up before we go any further and set out how we got to this point where we're publishing articles on the RTÉ. ie by academics on sports commentary, cancer in the bone marrow, the maths behind coffee, how babies learn to talk, the high cost of fast fashion and war crimes in Syria.

Rory Coveney, strategic adviser to the director-general in RTÉ, is the person whose brainwave led to Brainstorm. He wanted to widen and deepen the station's online content and coverage by establishing a space for new ideas, insights and perspectives on Ireland and the world. The people who would do this would be academics and researchers.


It makes perfect sense. We're used to hearing, seeing and reading academics on radio shows, TV programmes and newspaper and online columns. They're the experts with the knowledge, so editors, journalists and researchers turn to them all the time. I remember looking through the Observer one Sunday morning when we were setting Brainstorm up and copping that 80 per cent of the pieces in the main section either featured quotes by academics or were penned by them.

Beyond clickbait

There's also a genuine and growing demand for analysis, reports and opinion that go beyond the clickbait template. That's the reason why more and more people are reading, supporting and subscribing to publications such as the New Yorker, Guardian Long Reads, the Atlantic, the Economist, the New York Times and, indeed, this newspaper. These are publications that have sticky stuff beyond the headline and standfirst.

The special sauce with Brainstorm would be that every single article would be authored by academics or researchers and the whole project would be published and supported by Ireland’s public service broadcaster – both firsts worldwide. The academics would write from their own area of expertise and they would do so in a readable, accessible, straightforward way that the millions of people who visit would be happy to read.

Seven Irish universities and third-level institutions – University College Cork, University of Limerick, Dublin Institute of Technology, Maynooth University, Ulster University, Dublin City University and NUI Galway – stepped up to help fund the project. Their support helps to pay the wages, contributors' fees (we pay for all directly commissioned pieces) and the various technical bits and bobs required to get up and running and to keep going.

Not sponsored

It is important to state that this is not sponsored content. It’s not academics bigging up their own institutions. Which articles we choose to publish is our decision alone. Also, we welcome and have published pieces by academics who are not from the seven founding institutions.

Instead, Brainstorm operates just like any other online publication. Either I approach an academic to write a piece based on their specific area of expertise or they pitch a piece to me. We agree word counts and deadlines (I hadn’t realised that academics were as inventive as freelance journalists in coming up with excuses for missed deadlines). The pieces turn up and they’re subbed, designed and published. Copy comes in one end and articles come out the other end.

Of course, there are some differences between Brainstorm and other titles in the online space. The main one is that this is a public service project and not a commercial entity. Rather than turn a profit, the aim is to highlight the work of those in the nation’s third-level sector and to show RTÉ readers just what they’re actually doing. We’re in the hugely fortunate position that the institutions are footing the bill for this experiment and, based on their experience so far, are happy to continue for the full initial three-year period.

So what’s the editor of Brainstorm looking for? The biggest thing I’m after is readability, which basically means no academic-speak. Brainstorm is not an academic journal – and has no pretensions to be, despite the unfeasibly huge profits made by the publishers of such journals. Pieces must be written in clear, understandable, straightforward English. What was hugely reassuring to me was that about 80-85 per cent of the pieces we’ve received so far have matched that criteria.

Timeless reads

You can divide ones we've published to date into stories that have a news angle (such as recent pieces on Syria, the Eurovision, GDPR and Iraq) and the more quirky Brainstorm pieces that don't necessarily hang on a time hook. Be it a long read by Richard Scriven on modern pilgrimages, Alison Farrell's tribute to the art of live sports commentary or Gillian O'Brien's piece on how her grandmother inspired her fascination with death and dark tourism, these pieces are relatively timeless.

What has fascinated me most are the stories from the science and tech sectors. As someone who’s not from that background, it’s hugely satisfying to see brilliant researchers get onboard with Brainstorm, leave their labs and communicate what they’re doing in a clear and readable manner. An article on recreating the Earth from 90g of DNA, an article on what’s going on inside a newborn baby’s head and a report on how close are we to finding life on other planets are examples of this.

For RTÉ, Brainstorm has been a big winner. There’s now an abundance of meaty reads on the website on a ton of subjects, as well as a database of over 800 academics who are happy to write and comment on such topics. We know from the stats that Brainstorm has found an audience who are enjoying what they read. To give just one statistic from the plethora of metrics available, the average dwell time for a Brainstorm article is currently 5.54 minutes.

For the academics, Brainstorm has already had a sizeable impact. In addition to their raised profile, I keep hearing stories about meetings and projects which have followed Brainstorm pieces. It’s also telling to see Brainstorm story ideas and contributors picked up by radio shows and other media (and not just in Montrose).

New voices

For me, one of the biggest wins has been finding and developing new voices. A regular complaint about academics in the media is that it’s the usual handful of media-friendly voices who dominate proceedings as if they’re the only names and numbers in the contacts book. Coming from a music business background, I kept banging on about “being an A&R man for academia” when I started this job. As any good talent scout knows, finding new acts is only the start of things.

With Brainstorm too, finding that new writer is just one part of the job. Our aim is to develop them by continuing to highlight their work and insights, getting them to a stage where they’re the ones people are giving out about over-exposure. The fact that many college and university contacts say, “I’ve never heard of him or her” when we use a new writer from their institution shows we’re on the right track.

The future for Brainstorm? We've recently welcomed the Irish Research Council as our first strategic partner and we're planning a number of ways to work with and help the thousands of researchers they've funded. While the website will continue to be the main component of what we do, we plan to add events, podcasts and videos in the next 12 months. We've already had a start on the live side of things with well-attended events in Dublin City University and Maynooth University and we'll be at the Bloom festival in Dublin's Phoenix Park over the June bank holiday weekend.

Most of all, we hope to continue showcasing what academics and researchers are doing behind their college walls. We want to show how their work impacts on society and the contribution they have to make to the national discourse. We’ll do this by publishing stories which actually tell a story. And hopefully, we’ll keep avoiding the tweed.

Jim Carroll is the editor of RTÉ Brainstorm

Editor’s choice - 10 Brainstorm pieces to check out

All you want to know about back pain - Mary O'Keeffe and Kieran O'Sullivan's guide to lower back pain and how to sort it

My boss is a psychopath - Kevin Murphy on why bad people get good jobs

Pitch perfect - Alison Farrell's tribute to the art of live sports commentary

Doing time- Gillian O'Brien's look at dark tourism in Ireland

Make America scream again- Victoria McCollum on horror in the age of Trump

Here's what criminologists make of 'The Young Offenders' - the view from the couch with James Windle and Katharina Swirak

Will cow poo be more valuable than milk in 2030? Kieran O'Connell assesses if there's swag in slurry

How Irish crime gangs are a hidden threat to child wellbeing - Sean Redmond on what the Greentown study has discovered

How local government failed Cork - Frank Crowley on how the problems around housing, transport and infrastructure in Cork can be traced back to poor local government