What kind of academic journal would be most accessible to laymen?

In another thread, the following comment was made:

In what academic discipline would you find academic literature (peer reviewed journal articles, conference papers, etc.) that was the most accessible to laymen? Assume a literate high school graduate. They might have college credit, or even a degree, but not in any specific field. In other words, if a random person wanted to read an academic journal, what sort of journal would be most likely to be understandable?

Guesses I have:

  1. Education. The complex statistics might be beyond the “man on the street”, but the fact that someone has claimed that using “quiz show” type classroom lessons increases standardized test scores is inherently understandable, and potentially quite interesting.

  2. History. Complex documentary analysis aside, it might be quite interesting to read about a new theory of Macedonian mercenaries serving the Spanish crown in 1730 and influencing firearm tactics used on the Spanish Main.

From the title I interpreted a different question from the OP actually asks.

Science is a general science journal that is quite accessible. There are plenty of topics in there that I have not studied since high school, if at all.

The stuff I have a PhD in is very obviously not targeted at specialists. I’m often surprised when they explain a bit of jargon, but then I remember where I’m reading.


Whatever the topic covered, less specialized journals are going to be more accessible than highly specialized journals. E.g. Science or Nature (general science, with Nature having a bio slant) vs JACS or Angewandte Chemie (general chemistry) vs Organometallics or J Phys Chem B (focused chemistry journals).

Really? I do agree that the news, editorials, and perspectives are well written for the non-expert, but the actual research articles are full of jargon and technical details. At least in my corner of biology, I wouldn’t expect anyone with a general college education to be able to understand a Science paper. Even the headlines would and abstracts would be pretty impenetrable, though not as much as (say) a Cell paper.

As far as I can see, the increased accessibility of Science papers is more aimed towards the semi-expert, or an expert in a related discipline. Thus, as 3rd year undergrad bio major reading My First Real Research Papers, the Science and Nature papers were a lot easier. And now, as a grad student working on developmental biology, I have an easier time reading neuroscience papers in Nature than in the Journal of Neuroscience.

At this moment I’m preparing a journal club presentation for a Science paper. To someone who took intro college biology, I would expect that its title would be pretty incomprehensible, let alone the rest of the paper.

I’m not saying I’m on top of every article in there, but they’re a hell of a lot easier to follow than if they were published elsewhere.


I would say that the part of Science that is an academic journal, the back part, is probably more difficult for non-specialists to understand than are most other scientific journals. This is because the papers are kept extremely short and compressed. I sometimes even find ones in fields I am quite familiar with (whose more specialized journals I can easily read) quite hard to figure out. (Although the fact that they are so very short, and thus stick very closely to the key points, can make it a bit easier, and certainly easier to get through, than it might be otherwise.) Papers in fields with which I am not familiar often seem like almost complete gibberish, although, in another journal I could probably often get at lest a general sense of what it all about from the introductory paragraphs and the final discussion section, these are not present (or reduced to a bare, gnomic sentence or two, in Science).

The front half of Science is not a scientific or academic journal in the usual sense at all. It is a popularizing science oriented magazine aimed at professional scientists, with articles largely aimed at explaining science from one field to scientists from another (perhaps related) one (as well as stuff on the politics, etc. of science.). It is more like New Scientist, Discover, or Scientific American, pitched at a somewhat higher level, than it is like a regular academic journal (let alone its own back half). Actually, one of the most useful features of the front half, I find, are the articles that explain, in reasonably comprehensible language (and often at somewhat greater length), what the impenetrable research reports in the back half are actually about, and why anybody should care. Unfortunately, only a select few of the reports in the back get this treatment.


To respond to the OP, apart from history, philosophy is usually written in largely non-technical language. However, it will often be extremely difficult for a layperson to figure out why what is being discussed is of any significance or interest. (This is also true of nearly all journal articles in the sciences, but there, if you know enough to actually understand what is being said, you have a good chance of also knowing enough to understand why they care, and if you do not understand what is being said, you do not really have any basis on which to judge that it is pointless. In philosophy, however, an intelligent layperson can often understand much of the content without gaining any real insight into the motivation, so it tends to look like pointless blather to them.)

I would imagine a dedicated layperson could make sense of most non-quantitative work in the social sciences, especially history, sociology, political science, and some forms of psychology. Lord knows I assign enough of the stuff to undergraduates.

I also endorse the front half of Science. As for the back half, hey you can skim.
Among economic journals, [INDENT]“The Journal of Economic Perspectives (JEP) attempts to fill a gap between the general interest press and most other academic economics journals. The journal aims to publish articles that will serve several goals: to synthesize and integrate lessons learned from active lines of economic research; to provide economic analysis of public policy issues; to encourage cross-fertilization of ideas among the fields of thinking; to offer readers an accessible source for state-of-the-art economic thinking; to suggest directions for future research; to provide insights and readings for classroom use; and to address issues relating to the economics profession.”[/INDENT] http://www.aeaweb.org/jep/

All issues are now publicly accessible at no charge.

My guess would be social work, psychology, or library science.

I was going to go with library science. Some examples are hereand here. That said, once you get into technical services, it can be very jargony, and honestly, I get lost trying to read some of those.

Is that based on familiarity with those technical literatures, or just on what you imagine them to be like? :dubious:

Ooh! I know this one! I teach freshman comp, and in the second semester students have to read a journal article in the field of their intended major (or some reasonable approximation of it). Generally, they have by FAR the easiest time with education, health sciences, and psychology. The format never varies, the studies are usually described in ways that make sense to a reader without any particular background in the field, and while students may have difficulty making sense of the tables and statistical detail, the salient points are usually summarized and explained adequately in the abstract and conclusion. Chemistry / math / economics articles usually get too technical for first-year students, and humanities articles tend to assume too much prior knowledge on the reader’s part and are too loosely structured (no neat abstract-literature-review-methods-results-discussion pattern here).

I am a former editor (and recent contributor) of the Harvard Educational Review. It’s what’s called a generalist journal, which means that the intended audience would be those engaged in educational practice: teachers, administrators, professors, parents, scientists, policymakers. You will find very sophisticated articles with cutting edge methodology, but also pieces called “Voices Inside Schools” that are authored by teachers, students, parents, and other interested parties.

It’s a great journal, because there will be an article that requires fairly advanced statistical knowledge in one part of it, and another written by a first-year teacher a few pages later.