Simplifying Academic Research Papers for Lay Readers


Academic research papers are often published in scientific language that might be challenging for laypersons to understand. This justifies the use of various strategies such as article abstracts to deliver the content in simpler languages that non-academicians can understand. However, abstracts might not be detailed enough to relay the information more comprehensively. Researchers in the field of social science study and write about society. Hence, it makes sense that after conducting their investigations, they should share their work with the society whom they study, including policymakers. Furthermore, the public is often interested in what social scientists have to say about their respective areas of study so that they may be more aware of what is going on and how new scientific trends might affect them. Consequently, researchers sometimes resort to delivering a summary of the entire article so that lay readers can follow up the entire research content – from introduction and background to conclusion and recommendations. Ideally, the researchers are often experts in the fields they choose to conduct a study on. This implies that they understand the language and concepts within those fields even when delivered in the most complex languages and explanations. However, for lay readers, it is important to write and interpret the research content more simply and most understandably. Against this backdrop, the main aim of this paper is to conduct a summary of the research paper by Laura Mazzoli Smith, Liz Todd & Karen Laing (2018). It will synthesize and simplfy the concepts and arguments made by the authors to bring out its content to lay readers in the simplest form possible. This paper targets the audience of an educational newspaper (Times Educational Supplement), which is a periodical newspaper on educational matters in the UK.


The study

The study’s main focus is on fairness in education. Therefore, the researchers intended to explore students’ views and perspectives on fairness within the UK’s educational sector, and how they value relational justice and stakes of fairness. Therefore, to gather effective data that would help them achieve their objectives, the researchers chose to use qualitative research approaches. In particular, the study used focus groups from various schools in the UK to explore young people’s perspectives on fairness and social justice within the UK’s educational space. The participants were 80 male and female students of age 16-18 years from five different schools in the UK. They were organized into groups during the focus group discussions. More importantly, Smith et al deemed focus groups as the most effective data collection technique for their study as it would help in identifying the extent to which the students agreed or disagreed over the issues.

Meanwhile, data were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Furthermore, Smith et al adopted the thematic content analysis technique to analyze data. During this process, they coded the responses at individual statements level, whereby each student’s statements and deliberations were captured and categorized into specific themes. Smith et al also made significant ethical consideration during the research process. For instance, the researchers ensured that participants gave their opinions independently and anonymously.

The Background

Smith et al begin by defining and conceptualizing fairness as used in the UK’s educational space. They say that the term fairness and how it is used in policy and educational sectors exudes contradictory meanings. Besides, they demonstrate the confusion surrounding the conceptualization of fairness by illustrating that over 20 fairness commissions have been constituted across the UK since the 2008 global recessions, most of them using the normative definition of fairness as a composite of justice and equality, yet fairness is not always about justice nor equality. Nonetheless, the authors are keen to note that fairness is an instinctive and intuitive concept that does not need a thoughtful definition.

After conceptualizing fairness, Smith et al go ahead to justify their study by identifying several reasons why they think their study is important. For instance, the authors claim that despite the widespread use of the concept of fairness, there is a paucity of research evaluating how people commonly view fairness. They suggest that the possible reason for the shortage of research in this dimension is that the sociological and theoretical political work on social justice is segregated and that the latter and the former are also segregated from the existing empirical work in social sciences, which often eliminated the normative understanding of fairness to remain objective.

From the context of educational policy in the UK, the authors claim that the reason why there is little research about people’s views on fairness is that education policymakers are often driven by the agenda on ‘what works’, which fails to engage with the students and other education stakeholders for whom the policies are made.

Having established, with backing from literature, a paucity of research on the commonly held views of fairness in the UK’s education sector, Smith et al go ahead to explain the significance of their study, and how they think it might make positive contributions to the UK’s education sector. In doing so, the authors first assert that their paper is built upon previously identified concepts of fairness in various educational policies developed by the English government. Next, they argue that by evaluating how fairness in the education sector is perceived, they will be able to enhance and shape the various models of social justice in the UK. Therefore, as the authors claim, the study would help in demonstrating how young people’s understandings and perceptions on the meaning of fair education would make a significant contribution to creating a change within the prevailing models of research and policy, especially with regards to neoliberalism. Besides, they claim that the study would identify issues which should be of great consideration when evaluating the different views and opinions about fairness in the UK’s education sector.

Literature Review

Smith et al go ahead to explore a variety of literature on fairness in education policy, with a great focus on social justice within the educational space. In doing so, the researchers first acknowledge the availability of adequate literature on social justice and equality within the education sector, as well as literature highlighting the components of social justice in education. Cumulatively, these pieces of literature end up exploring various models of fairness in education policy within the UK, with two main opposing discourses highlighted.

The first discourse highlighted in the literature review by Smith et al is on the development of meritocratic ideas of fairness and equal opportunity. First, they make reference to a previous analysis, in which it was suggested a relationship between the notions of distributional justice is related to the notion of equality of opportunity, and both play a central role in understanding fairness. This idea of fairness is related to the notion of ‘closing the gap,’ which describes the efforts made in closing the gaps between the rich and the poor by making premium payments directly to the economically disadvantaged in schools. Hence, the authors explain that the ‘closing the gap’ approach relates to the principle of fair distribution of education duties, goods, and rights; as well as the beliefs about what enhances fair distribution.

The authors also explain another understanding of fairness that relates to the ‘closing the gap,’ which is the meritocratic principle. According to Smith et al, scholars have often assumed that fairness in education is similar to a meritocratic education system, a principle within which there is a belief that the differences in educational outcomes are justified so long as they are attained through fair processes characterized by equal opportunity. Nonetheless, Smith et al claim that this is a weaker definition of fairness in education, and that stronger definition would concentrate on the equality of outcome rather than equality of the process. To support their argument, the authors give an example of the pupil premium, which they say is an effort to create fairness in education by securing similar educational outcomes for different groups of students in the society by recognizing the fact that the background differences are a cause of unequal opportunities.

Other pieces of literature reviewed by Smith et al indicate that if educational policy focuses only on educational attainment without providing a structural solution to poverty will not help in closing the educational gap. In this regard, Smith et al aver that there is a need to explore individual achievements from the perspective of positional competition, which propagates the understanding that people have different achievement capabilities. Thus, the authors agree with the deliberation of other authors that to achieve genuine equality of opportunity for students, there must be equality among parents. Based on the reviewed literature, Smith et al developed a conceptual framework which states that fairness should be applied in education as an evaluative concept and not only as a way of ‘closing the gap.’

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Generally, Smith et al’s findings highlight key issues of concern raised by young people regarding fairness in education. Fundamentally, the results reveal that the agenda of performativity is detrimental to fairness in education because it narrows down students’ choice by establishing high stakes pupil-teacher performance target, as well as by creating a hierarchy of subjects and performance targets for students. Thus, performativity is viewed as an impediment to fairness in education because it is seen in terms of relational justice and experienced as a lack of regard for students’ diverse desires, talents and their right to determine their pathways. Smith et al’s findings on performativity corroborate with the findings of other pieces of research. For instance, Smith et al mention the study by Hutchins (2015) that had similar results but noted how the discourse on performativity has always been side-lined in broader sociological discourses.

Smith et al observe that from the students’ perspective, it appears that the fundamental problem is also the curtailing of students’ choices in regards to what they consider as an achievement. In an attempt to triangulate their results, Smith et al highlight the reality described by their respondents that adults lack the interest and time to identify and acknowledge their aspirations. Based on this finding, Smith et al argue that it is unsurprising that the demands of stakes of fairness are associated with the demands of relational justice. Besides, they argue that encouraging students to invest in narrow areas of achievement should be an area of great concern because it affects the idea of individual rights and relational values – and present a scenario where the contract, at the expense of community, acts as the bond of human association. Still, on the theme of performativity, the researchers claim that the establishments of targets, within the discourse of performativity portray the targets as in the interest of the students, and therefore failure to effectively interrogate the students’ lived experiences, policymakers may lack the tools to critique the fundamental basis of performativity as defined by others.

Smith et al’s findings also touched on the need-based allocation of resources and how it affects fairness in education. Ideally, the study findings demonstrated how the need-based allocation of education resources can affect relational and right –based justice, which is often value-driven. As part of their response, participants in the study by Smith et al questioned the aims and priorities of their education as well as the place of education within the society. Notably, the students’ responses about their lived experiences support Smith et al’s concern that the current approaches to social justice in education that predominantly draw on meritocratic thinking and distributive norms give an unsustainable vision to education. To further express their point, Smith et al refer to the study by Gorard (2010), which explains how student’s experience at school inform their learner identity in the long-term. However, it is important to note that whereas Gorarad (2010) argues that mixed intake at schools promote a sense of justice and belonging, data by Smith et al suggest a slightly different stance. For instance, in the study by Smith et al, it was the students from comprehensive schools who felt most unfairly treated. According to Smith et al, this finding should be of great concern, considering the other benefits that mixed-intake schools have, and is maybe evidence that the performativity culture and how it narrowly views schooling.


Smith et al provide a comprehensive conclusion based on their findings. For instance, they conclude that there is a need for the UK’s education sector to change the way it conceptualizes education, especially within the context of neoliberalism. However, Smith et al acknowledge that there has been an effort in changing the way education is conceptualized, especially by challenging the commonly held perceptions of low aspirations as well as by changing the current notions of ‘narrowing the gap.’ The authors proceed to suggest the need for a different public consensus about the need and nature of education, and as the authors argue, the process of developing this new consensus must involve the understanding of fairness as a value-based concept that takes account of students’ lived experiences.

As part of their conclusive remarks, Smith et al explain how the findings of their study demonstrate that the students’ aggregate outcomes used as a measure of quality education can mask the fact that students sometimes fail to achieve their rights and express their capabilities within the current context of UK education because they aggregate across lives to measure performance, thereby missing out on other aspects that are important to the individuals. Evidence from the study by Smith et al demonstrates that failure to adhere to relational justice and giving high regard to performativity denies individuals the opportunity to develop and enhance their individual preferences of education.

Ultimately, Smith et al’s study on fairness within the UK’s education sector reveals that whereas fairness is a common term, its use I policy development takes various contradictory positions. Besides, Smith et al have found that within the context of education, the concept of fairness has been addressed in the perspectives of equality of opportunity, distributional justice and principles of freedom of choice. The results revealed different points of concern from the students leading t a conclusion that it is important to focus on the lived experiences of students when discussing fairness in education. Besides, the authors conclude that there is a need to re-evaluate the principles and values within which the UK’s education is based.

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