New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently ignited a bit of a firestorm with a column asking why academics are irrelevant to public debates. I’d turn the question around: Why aren’t journalists better at taking advantage of academic expertise?
The most efficient arrangement would have academics communicate directly with the public. Thankfully for journalists, they don’t. That presents a kind of arbitrage opportunity for journalists: Although academics write in jargon, they speak in English. And they’re typically happy to donate absurd amounts of time walking reporters through the thickets of their expertise. Their knowledge becomes our stories -- and, ultimately, our page views and advertising impressions. It would be a disaster for our profession if academics became good at communicating what they know.
The relationship between academics and journalists should be a happy symbiosis. The two sides are perfectly designed, in strengths and weaknesses, to support each other. Yet journalists, such as Kristof, are often frustrated by academics, while academics often feel ignored and dismissed by journalists.
As a journalist who really does try to keep abreast of the incredible work done by academics, I think both sides are targeting the wrong culprit. The real problem is that the primary system for disseminating academic research -- through professional journals and working papers -- doesn't work for anyone but academics, and it may not even work for them. Professional journals are wildly expensive to subscribe to and bizarrely difficult to keep up with. How expensive? Last year, Harvard University -- yes, the place with the $30 billion endowment -- concluded that “major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable.” Journal subscriptions can often run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Academics are rebelling. At the CostofKnowledge.com, more than 14,000 researchers have signed a statement declaring they’ll boycott Elsevier, one of the largest journal publishers, unless the company radically changes its terms of business. “In brief,” wrote Tim Gowers, the Fields Medal-winning mathematician who started the campaign, “if you publish in Elsevier journals you are making it easier for Elsevier to take action that harms academic institutions, so you shouldn’t.” Journal publishers protest that they play a crucial role by hosting the peer-review process – and that’s true. But already open-source, online-only journals like PLOS Medicine have shown themselves able to manage peer reviews for a fraction of the price.
Cost isn’t the only problem. The journal system also fractures academic knowledge across dozens of different publications. It’s almost impossible to keep up with the papers being published. There’s no centralized list. You can’t check an academic equivalent of a best-seller’s list. Every year I attend the American Political Science Association conference and, while many of the presentations are the outgrowths of working papers rather than published papers, I’m continually stunned by how much I missed despite my best efforts to keep up. I’ve asked at least a dozen political scientists whether there’s a better way to keep current. There isn’t.
The problem, they say, isn’t just the journals -- it’s that by the time work gets to the journals, it’s already past its sell-by date. The formalized process through which academic work is published obscures a surprisingly informal process by which the newest, most interesting papers are first circulated.
Princeton University economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman described the workings of the system in a 2012 blog post:
You got provisional entree to such a group through connections -- basically, being a student of someone who mattered, and being tagged as having potential. You got permanent membership by doing enough clever stuff; the informal rule was three good papers, one to get noticed, one to show that the first wasn’t a fluke, one to show that you had staying power.
There are some institutions, such as the National Bureau of Economic Research, that help people find the latest working papers. But it’s a partial solution at best.
Between the problems of the journals and the oddities of the working papers, journalists lack an easy way to follow the work of academics. That leads to the kind of frustration Kristof articulated: Journalists know that academia holds a universe of valuable information; they just can’t find a reliable way to tap it.
The good news is the chasm is closing. Academics have increasingly turned to the blogosphere, opening a window on academic conversations that were formerly out of view. In political science, for instance, the Monkey Cage is a minor miracle. In economics, Mark Thoma at the Economist’s View is tireless in tracking discussion across the profession.
Still, it would be better if academics didn’t have to blog, or know a blogger, to get their work in front of interested audiences. That would require a new model for disseminating academic work -- one that gets beyond the samizdat system used for working papers on the one hand, and the rigid journal publication system on the other. If academia was easier to keep up with, I think a lot of academics would be surprised to learn how many journalists care about their work, and I think a lot of journalists would be happy to find how much academic research can do for their stories.
(Ezra Klein is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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