Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Prof, no one is reading you

An average academic journal article is read in its entirety by about 10 people. To shape policy, professors should start penning commentaries in popular media.
By Asit K. Biswas And Julian Kirchherr, Published The Straits Times, 11 Apr 2015

MANY of the world's most talented thinkers may be university professors, but sadly most of them are not shaping today's public debates or influencing 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 social sciences.

In the 1930s and 1940s, 20 per cent 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 per cent.

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 scientific communities - 82 per cent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once. No one ever refers to 32 per cent of the peer-reviewed articles in the social and 27 per cent in the natural sciences.

If a paper is cited, this does not imply it has actually been read. According to one estimate, only 20 per cent of papers cited have actually been read. We estimate that an average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read completely by no more than 10 people. Hence, impacts of most peer-reviewed publications even within the scientific community are minuscule.

Many scholars aspire to contribute to their discipline's knowledge and to influence practitioners' decision-making.

However, practitioners very rarely read articles published in peer-reviewed journals. We know of no senior policymaker or senior business leader who ever read regularly any peer-reviewed papers in well-recognised journals like Nature, Science or Lancet.

No wonder.

Most journals are difficult to access and prohibitively expensive 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 (often unnecessary!) would still prevent practitioners (including journalists) from reading and understanding 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 them and their policies. In India, this was practised by former prime minister Indira Gandhi. Many ministers in Canada insist on similar round-ups. Governments in the Middle East now even request summaries of discussions on new social media.

We are not aware of a single minister anywhere in the world who has ever wanted regular summaries of scientific publications in areas of their interest.

If academics want to have an impact on policymakers and practitioners, they must consider popular media, which has been ignored by them - although media firms have developed many innovative business models to help scholars reach out.

One effective model is Project Syndicate (PS), a non-profit organisation, 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.

Even if scholars agree on the importance of publishing in the popular media, the system plays against them.

In order to obtain tenure, scholars must churn out as many peer-reviewed articles in high-impact journals as possible. Publications in (prestigious) peer-reviewed journals continue to be the key performance indicator within academia: whether anyone reads them becomes a secondary consideration.

If the highest impact journal in the water field is considered, it has only four subscribers in India with a population of some 1.3 billion. Three years ago, neither the water minister nor those three levels below him had even heard of this journal. While a publication in such a journal will bring kudos to a professor, its impact on policymaking in India, where water is a very critical issue, is zero.

It may be about time to re-assess scholars' performance. For tenure and promotion considerations, their impact 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, and ability to communicate in a simple, understandable manner.

Admittedly, impact is not guaranteed. Many policymakers already have a reasonably exact idea on the policy option they 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 would vastly benefit from more publications by scholars in the popular media. Slowly, this is recognised within academia.

For instance, the National University of Singapore now encourages its faculty to list op-eds in their profiles. However, significantly more emphasis is still being given to publications in so-called high-impact journals.

Change is happening but at snail's pace.

Asit Biswas, a leading authority on environmental and water policy, is distinguished visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in the National University of Singapore.

Julian Kirchherr is a doctoral researcher at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. He was with McKinsey & Co before that, advising governments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

In defence of academic research
By Aamir Rafique Hashmi, Published The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2015

IN A recent opinion piece ("Prof, no one is reading you", April 11), writers Asit K. Biswas and Julian Kirchherr argue that academic research is not shaping public policy and that "practitioners very rarely read articles published in peer-reviewed journals".

After reading their article, one is left wondering: What is the use of academic papers if hardly anybody reads them? Here is an academic's response to this question.

Many academic papers are not written for the public or policymakers. Instead, they are meant for communication among experts in a specialised field. A technical paper in a medical journal will only make sense to trained medical professionals.

Most academic papers, despite contributing to the ongoing debates among experts, will not be of much practical use or be of much use to policymakers.

Over time, and perhaps after thousands of academic papers, when our understanding of an issue improves, it is shared with the public and policymakers on many available forums.

The creation of knowledge is a sporadic and chaotic process and a significant part of this process may not have direct policy relevance.

Although a lot of academic research may not primarily be done to aid policy, it has enormous direct and indirect effects on shaping public policy nonetheless. First, let us consider the direct impact of academic research on policy.

Multidisciplinary academic research in climate change over the last few decades is the main reason behind the current global movement to do something about it.

In my own field of economics, academic research has had enormous direct effect on policy. For a recent example, one may look at the speech given by Dr Janet Yellen, chairman of the Board of Governors of the US Federal Reserve, on March 25.

From the text of the speech, it may not be obvious how much academic research is behind the ideas presented therein. However, a look at the footnotes to the speech immediately makes it clear that almost every substantial statement in the speech had some academic research behind it.

Academic research also has an impact on public policy indirectly. This is especially true in the case of primary scientific research. Findings of primary scientific research are used by applied scientists in their research. The findings of applied research, in turn, are used by those doing policy-related work. Finally, the policy researchers directly communicate with the practitioners and general public. This indirect channel of dissemination of scientific research is perhaps more widespread than the direct channel described above.

In many ways, academic research is similar to commercial research. Take the example of research and development (R&D) in the auto industry.

Automakers spend billions of dollars every year on R&D. But if we compare one car model with the next, the differences are generally very small. The reason is that whatever best technology available at the time of production is already incorporated into the existing car models. New technology is hard to invent and generally comes in small improvements.

A number of crazy and sometimes useless ideas are tried in the research labs before something meaningful emerges from the apparent mess. Academic research is just like that. Academics try a number of crazy ideas and share them with one another in the form of academic papers. In this endless process, bad ideas get screened out (nobody cites a bad paper) and good ideas gain favour. Once an idea has been sufficiently debated and its usefulness acknowledged by a number of experts, it becomes ready for consumption by the policy circles and public.

If we view academic research from a funding perspective, its direction is already shaped by the society at large. Academic research is highly competitive and academics have to compete with one another for research funds. For more costly projects, the competition for funds can be national or even international.

If a research project is deemed not interesting or useful enough, it will not get funding. Market forces determine which projects get undertaken and which are given up.

Also, the flagship research funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation in the US and the National Research Foundation in Singapore, have their own research agendas and only finance the projects that are considered useful for society.

While academic research is an endless process and goes on non-stop, good academic ideas, sometimes even in their infancy, find their way into the common press.

Quality international newspapers and magazines - such as The Economist, Wall Street Journal, New York Times and National Geographic magazine - regularly report cutting-edge scientific findings in a language accessible to policymakers and the public. Most policymakers and practitioners may not read academic papers, but they regularly get the latest scientific insights from these newspapers and magazines.

Academic research has another very useful purpose: It informs our teaching and helps us train future leaders for almost all segments of society.

There is ample evidence that those with a university degree command a substantial premium in the job market over those without it. And the curriculum that leads to university degrees is almost entirely based on the academic research done over decades and, in some cases, over centuries.

To sum up, academic papers are primarily a means to facilitate debate among experts. Most are not written for practitioners or policymakers.

When these debates lead to significant discoveries, such discoveries are shared with the practitioners, policymakers and the public using multiple available channels.

Academic papers are extremely useful in facilitating the creation of new knowledge and ideas, and their usefulness cannot be gauged solely by the count of the number of people who read them.

The writer is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics, National University of Singapore.

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