11 August 2010

What’s in a name? Is it an academic question?

Headline writers can be lazy, resorting to such words as 'boffin' to label scientists. It doesn't help when the people who write press releases collude in the inappropriate use of language, especially labels.

Take the press release "Southampton academics investigate effects of lightning strikes on aircraft". It may come from one of the best, and most media savvy, research groups in its subject area in the UK, but that headline and the first sentence seem to miss out on the subtle undertones of the 'academic' word.

It says: "An academic at the University of Southampton is studying the potential for damage posed by lightning for carbon fibre composites (CFCs) which are increasingly being used in aircraft manufacture, with a view to reducing damage and minimising repair costs."

Engineers constantly moan that their title is abused by people who mend washing machines. The person quoted in the release works in the Electrical Power Engineering Research Group. Doesn't this make him an engineer? If the issue is to avoid the 'mechanic' taint, why not call the researcher just that, a researcher?

This is, by the way, an interesting story, albeit one that surfaces fairly regularly. Nothing wrong with that, it is how research happens.