Monday, June 01, 2015

Poorly Argued NYT Article on Professors and the Media

The New York Times has an article about how professors want to get their research results reported by the media. Unfortunately, it confuses or conflates disparate issues.

First, it notes the danger of people getting research results reported before they are peer-reviewed. They give one example but I don't think this is very common.

Second, it focuses exclusively on a tiny handful of universities.

Still, the benefits to academics of generating media attention may be subtly skewing their research. “The pressure is tremendous,” said James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago and the winner of aNobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science. “Many young economists realize that they win a MacArthur or the Clark prize, or both, by being featured in The Times.”

OK, fine, but that is not true for 99.99999% of professors. I think the norm is for deans and other higher-ups to appreciate getting noticed in high-profile media (because it reflects well on the university) but they don't exert pressure in that regard.

Third, "impact" should not be confused with "media."

But popular media attention increasingly works in a candidate’s favor as well. For tenure decisions, “I’ve gotten letters,” Dr. Heckman said, “that ask me to assess the impact and visibility of a person’s work.”

We ask tenure reviewers to assess the impact and visibility of a person's work. That's the whole point. But I don't think the reporter understands that--we mean things like citations, not being mentioned in popular media.

Fourth, the article does not note the long-standing (but gradually changing) resistance of professors to "translate" their work into op-eds, blog posts, etc. More people do this than in the past, but still it's remarkably few. This doesn't necessarily mean showing new and sexy results, but simply helping the general public get a more nuanced view of a policy issue.

After the financial crisis, however, the public and the news media became more interested in serious research, and scholars responded by seeking more coverage. 

I don't see how the financial crisis relates to this at all. And I don't think this is driven by the public. Instead, the author should note that scholars themselves started pushing their peers in this direction. At least this is true of political science.

In short, the article leaves the impression we are in this dangerous era where attention-grubbing professors are throwing caution to the wind for the sake of getting their names in the media. I just don't see it.


RAJ 11:51 AM  

I have been amazed at the deterioration of understanding of research and faculty life at the New York Times in recent years. Not sure if it is appropriate to link this to what seems to be a general retreat from support for universities, but this article at least clearly views university faculty as just another kind of employee trying to increase personal income and "profit" to the corporation.

Greg Weeks 4:22 PM  

It could well be, though my impression was that this reporter wanted to tell a certain story despite not knowing much of anything about academia.

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