Britain gets Down Under academic commentary site

Two years after Andrew Jaspan launched a daily online newsletter with unpaid political, social and scientific commentaries from academics around Australia, his novel publication The Conversation attracts nearly 700,000 visitors a month. Now the project is to launch a British offshoot.

To be known as The Conversation UK, the new venture will start in May as a not-for-profit educational trust.

Announcing the move, Jaspan – former editor of The Observer in London, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and, more recently, The Age in Melbourne – told readers last weekend that the British version would be based at City University, London, with an initial staff of 10.

It would undergo a trial period “with the expectation of a fuller launch at a later date”.

Jaspan said 13 British universities had agreed to back the project, along with the Wellcome Trust, the Nuffield Foundation and the higher education funding councils for England, Wales and Scotland.

In Australia, the publication is funded by 20 of the nation’s 39 universities, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and Massey University in New Zealand.

Although most of the content is written by Australian academics and researchers, The Conversation receives contributions from others based in 300 or so institutions around the world. All articles published are available for re-publication under a Creative Commons licence.

Chair of Universities UK and Bristol University Vice-chancellor Professor Eric Thomas said universities had a leading role to play in public engagement, whether in the area of science and technology or politics and social affairs.

Thomas said The Conversation UK would provide space for the dissemination and understanding of important information and knowledge, “unlocking information and making it widely accessible to all".

Jaspan said a huge public demand existed for independent, high quality, authenticated and trusted content. “If the enthusiasm of readers in Australia is any guide, The Conversation UK will very quickly establish a similar reputation and audience,” he said.

“In effect we are moving towards a global newsroom in which we will all work together to get the best content from around the world for our readers, but with an emphasis on being relevant and compelling to regional audiences.”

Despite the backing of all the big Australian universities and the nation’s major research agency, Jaspan was clearly looking to the future when he called on readers of The Conversation last month to start making donations.

“We are a non-profit educational charity that exists for the public good, and your support makes a real difference to our future,” he wrote. “Unlike other media, we won’t put our content behind a pay wall – instead we are part of the open access movement, which believes in the free flow of information.”

Over the past month, more than 350 readers have accepted the invitation and signed up as “Friends of The Conversation”. Jaspan will no doubt want to do the same in Britain.