Scholars all around the world are almost solely judged upon their publications in (prestigious) peer-reviewed journals. Asit Biswas and Julian Kirchherr argue that publications in the popular media must count as well. After all, these publications are crucial in informing practitioners’ decision-making.
Many of the world’s most talented thinkers may be university professors, but sadly most of them do not shape today’s public debates or influence policies. Indeed, scholars often frown upon publishing in the popular media. “Running an opinion editorial to share my views with the public? Sounds like activism to me”, a professor recently noted at a conference, hosted by the University of Oxford. The absence of professors from shaping public debates and policies seems to have exacerbated in recent years, particularly in the social sciences. During 1930s and 1940s, 20 percent of articles in the prestigious The American Political Science Review focused on policy recommendations. At the last count, the share was down to a meagre 0.3 percent.
Even debates among scholars do not seem to function properly. Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within the scientific community: 82 percent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once. Rarely do scholars refer to 32 percent of the peer-reviewed articles in the social and 27 percent in the natural sciences. If a paper is cited, though, this does not imply it has actually been read. According to one estimate, only 20 percent of papers cited have actually been read. We suspect that an average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read completely at most by no more than 10 people. Hence, impacts of most peer-reviewed publications even within the scientific community are miniscule.
Image credit: oscar cesare (Wikimedia, Public Domain)
Many scholars aspire to contribute to their discipline’s knowledge and to influence practitioner’s decision-making. However, it is widely acknowledged practitioners rarely read articles published in peer-reviewed journals. We know of no senior policy-maker, or senior business leader who ever reads any peer-reviewed papers, even in recognized journals like Nature, Science or The Lancet.
No wonder: First of all, most journals are prohibitively expensive to access for anyone outside of academia. Even if the current open-access-movement becomes more successful, the incomprehensible jargon and the sheer volume and lengths of papers (mostly unnecessary!) would still prevent practitioners (including journalists) from reading them.
Brevity is central. Many government leaders now maintain a standing instruction to prepare a two-page summary every morning of what the popular media writes about their policies. In India, this practice was started by Indira Gandhi. Ministers in Canada insist on similar round-ups. Governments in the Middle East even summarize discussions on new social media these days. No decision-maker would ever ask for summaries regarding publications and discussions in academic journals. If academics want to have impact on policy makers and practitioners, they must consider popular media, which has never been easy for scholars. This in spite of the fact that media firms have developed many innovative business models to help scholars reach out.
One of the most promising models: Project Syndicate (PS), a non-profit-organization which distributes commentary by the world’s thought leaders to more than 500 newspapers comprising 300 million readers in 154 countries. Any commentary accepted by PS is automatically translated into 12 other languages and then distributed globally to the entire network. However, even if scholars agree regarding the importance of publishing in the popular press, the system plays against them. In order to obtain tenure, scholars must churn out as many peer-reviewed articles as possible, publications in (prestigious) peer-reviewed journals are the key performance indicator within academia: whether anyone reads them or not becomes a secondary consideration.
It may be time to reassess scholars’ performance. For tenure and promotion considerations, scholars’ impacts on policy formulation and public debates should also be assessed. These publications often showcase the practical relevance and potential application of the research results to solve real world problems. Admittedly, impact is not guaranteed. Particularly most policy-makers already have a reasonably exact idea regarding the policy they would prefer. The policy must, first and foremost, satisfy their plethora of stakeholders. Very few decision-makers look only for the most optimal economic, social, environmental, technical, or political solution.
Those who look for scientific evidence, though, would vastly benefit from more scholarly publications in the popular press. Slowly, this is recognized within academia. For instance, the National University of Singapore (NUS) now encourages faculty to list op-eds on their profiles. However, significant more emphasis is still given to publications in so-called high impact journals.
Change is happening very, very slowly.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
Asit Biswas is one of the world’s leading authorities on environmental and water policy. He is the founder and president of the Third World Centre for Water Management in Mexico, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, the University of Wuhan, China as well as the Indian Institute of Technology. Biswas has been a senior advisor to more than 20 governments, six Heads of United Agencies as well as the Secretary Generals of OECD and NATO.
Julian Kirchherr is a doctoral researcher at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. Prior to joining the University of Oxford, Kirchherr was as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company advising governments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. He also served as a City Councilor in Werl, Germany, as well as a County Councilor in Soest, Germany.
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Citations should cite the subject matter and not “only” the written matter. Citations should cite the subject matter and not “only” the favorite authors. Citations should cite the subject matter and not “only” the favorite publishers. Citations should cite the subject matter and not “only” the intention to get an approved publication. Citations should cite the subject matter and not “only” the committee which directly/indirectly demands to be pleased. Citations should cite the subject matter and not “only” lobby contributors. Citations should cite the subject matter and not “only” funding agencies. Publications from any field are for the public and not “only” those who are allowed to cite in written mode. Academia has developed in-built reflex actions which allow written matter to be valued more than the subject matter. Subject matter should focus on subject matter and not “only” on the mode of communication. There is no use of standardized tests targeting mode of communication as it can be witnessed that present academia is shy to let the world know transparently about the irrelevant focus provided “only” on written matter and not the subject matter. If there is a speaker, a listener, a writer, a reader the subject matter forming the academic activity can further be cited in speaking, listening, writing, reading; if there is an academician the subject matter forming the academia is in majority allowed to be cited in written mode alone. We are human beings not “only” speaker beings, listener beings, writer beings, reader beings; there exists no special mode of communication in the field of knowledge other than the cognition; this is the reality which the academicians blatantly ignore. Academia wastes academic time in justifying: citations, mode of communication, pleased academia and the favorite academia; trading off the academic activities which allow coherent focus on cognition and expression. Academia should utilize time in understanding and implementing cognition and expression relevant to the field of knowledge rather than focusing “only” on written matter of importance “only” to the lobby of reviewers tied with the publisher’s tag. On this planet of ours academicians preferred to express and share the field of knowledge, and at present we witness scientists hiding and filing patents playing their tiny political circus outside the laboratories, we witness academicians advertising the rating of so called prestigious institutes, we witness filtering focused admission criteria and the focus on job market driven skill-set based programs, we witness that the academia demonstrates in front of the public mainly all that which forms the non-academic, the public eventually is allowed to be free to get surrounded in layers and layers of loans and debts and the public is allowed to roam in fragile concrete jungles which are creating synthetic employment and synthetic unemployment sectors where even the academics faces and shares the economic melt-downs when needed. In a knowledge plant the roots represent knowledge, in a finance plant the roots represent finance, in a botanical plant the roots represent roots; financial seeds can create financial plants alone, knowledge seeds create all. If academics has so much pride and joy shared and displayed with the economic fluctuations then allow conversion of all institutes into banks/funding-agencies and of all banks/funding-agencies into institutes; stack and protect the institute-bank-funding-agency amalgamate all over the financial walls, even then the knowledgeable will share and express that: education is not a financial property and an economic right, education is a natural signature. Peers are mutating day by day just to relish and review the sweet pears and the hard seeds found inside such sweet pears rather than reviewing the subject matter. For a publication the peer review should be performed by the public in the public for the public and not “only” through those who hide and file patents and not “only” there where the favorites test favoritism. Knowledge in this universe is a human right, a natural right, a fundamental right and not “only” a peer right, a citation right or a financial right. There is no academic use of the existing academia if it considers itself blatant enough to not to realize the present state of academics. There always existed lot of information on this planet and will continue to exist but when the focus is not on cognition and expression, then it signifies that time is appropriate for the academia to evolve via self-healing; to be conscious and be able to immerse in and absorb, to digest the existing academic reality and its paraphernalia. When the academician senses the appropriate through the gates of the natural faculty then while citing few sentences forming part of this single paragraph, adhering to any mode of communication, knowledge alone can and will guide and allow the academician to preclude the usage of the word “only” where/when “only” is not applicable in reality. Thank You
The name is Indira Gandhi, not Ghandi. It is an important name. Get it right.
Many thanks. Have corrected the typo now.
Sierra Williams (Managing Editor)
Mentions on social media can’t be used to judge an article’s impact. This is not because it shows less engagement with the source itself but because it will prove so very easy to manipulate.
One platform this article made me immeditely think of is The Conversation – http://theconversation.com/uk
I think the arguments made in this post support the need for The Conversation as a way to amplify research to a wider audience. I agree with people’s comments – you have to be very careful with regards to measures of impact from the social web – however this issue is being explored quite deeply in a nmber of projects & I trust soon there will be answer as to what the convention ( s) should be?!?
The problem with The Conversation is that due to the way they were set up they privilege content from academics working at the universities that contribute to their funding, meaning that others are marginalized and don’t receive the same opportunity for their articles to feature on the site.
I recommend readers of this article to check Science Simplified project, and the outreach report we developed:
Interesting article. Not sure I agree with the main argument though. It it seems to me that academics are increasingly required to justify what they do in terms of non-academic ends and non-academic values – most perniciously in the increasingly pervasive demands that we demonstrate our ‘impact’ on policy, business, or whatever other non-academic ‘users’ are deemed to underpin the worth of research and scholarship. This is more obviously inappropriate in some fields and disciplines than it is in social science, but more generally I see it as part of a broad undermining of academic culture and academic values linked to the neoliberalisation of higher education. It’s created a situation where academics can become lauded and appointed to professorial positions chiefly because they present TV programmes, which seems to me a very dubious trajectory. The difference between simply being high-profile and producing high quality work is all-important, and in danger of being lost. It’s to us as academics to know the difference and not to allow academia to become reduced to just another variant of the same self-promotion media game that already governs so many spheres. So, for me, ‘activism’ and popular media outputs are great, and in some disciplines and fields they may complement research and scholarship, but they are not academia, so they shouldn’t be significant in promotions. Just my ‘Ivory tower’ view!
Scholars in different career points should be evaluated differently. Contributions to popular press to influence decision making or participating in the debate should be the result of a research path and appear later in the career, not as a major achievement just after finishing a PhD (just to take the argument to the extreme). Also, a distinction between providing informed positions to the debate or paternalistically prescribing courses of action are quite different types of intervention. Nice point, but needs much more though than just saying it should count for tenure.
The last REF counted “impact” for 20% at the last REF. That’s the equivalent of about 8 publications. There is no reason to think that increasingly money and metrics focused university managers do not already take this into consideration.