Professors, Let’s Go (and Get Credit for Going) Public

4 April 16 by Erin Trauth

Before entering academia, I worked as a full-time journalist, writing features and news for a daily paper. Now, though my career focus has changed since choosing the path of an academic, my interest in journalistic work has not waned. While pursuing my master’s and Ph.D. degrees and holding various teaching and administrative posts, I have kept my freelance journalism work going, posting to various websites related to food labeling, nutrition, and health communication – all extensions of my academic work in technical communication and rhetoric. This past and present journalistic work, in terms of public readership and reader response, has spoiled me in a major way.

Some of these posts have been read by tens of thousands of people, and, on some, I receive reader comments and questions so frequently that I often can’t keep up with my responses. One article on health communication, for example, was shared almost 27,000 times and received nearly 300 comments and questions. When such exposure happens, I like to think that I have made some sort of impact sharing my work in such a public way – but this isn’t always the case with my academic writing.

Meanwhile, in academia, we most often aim to publish our research in peer-reviewed journals. While peer-reviewed publications are of value and certainly create meaningful conversation in the humanities, how much does this discussion extend to the general public or to help shape public policy? An April 2015 article by Asit K. Biswas, a visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and Julian Kirchherr, a doctoral researcher at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, claim in “Prof, no one is reading you,” that we, as academics, sometimes do not make much of a public impact with our academic work: “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.”

There are of course exceptions – I would not downplay recent endeavors by so many scholars to publicize our work, especially with efforts to publicize academic work on social media and in collaborations with field practitioners. However, while some individuals may extend their reach outside of the academic vacuum, Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker’s archive editor and a former academic, writes, we still have to turn most of our attention back to continually pleasing a relatively small group of people: “Increasingly, to build a successful academic career you must serially impress very small groups of people (departmental colleagues, journal and book editors, tenure committees).” And the numbers on the readership of peer-reviewed journals do make a startling point. As Biswas and Kirchherr explain, “Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within scientific communities – 82 percent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once.” By some estimates, the authors posit, peer-reviewed journal publications are read by no more than 10 people.

Despite these dismal numbers, it is well known in our field that these peer-reviewed publications are still essential for tenure and promotion in most university posts. So, while churning out pieces for public consumption may be the most efficient way to share our research in a public light, we do have to spend six months to a year focusing on an article or perhaps even longer on a book project to get and keep our jobs. Rothman writes: “Academics may write for large audiences on their blogs or as journalists. But when it comes to their academic writing, and to the research that underpins it—to the main activities, in other words, of academic life—they have no choice but to aim for very small targets. Writing a first book, you may have in mind particular professors on a tenure committee; miss that mark and you may not have a job.” And, after the fact, re-purposing our academic writing for public spaces takes time and effort. So, then: what’s an academic with only so many hours in the day to do?

Some say it’s the availability of academic journals themselves that should change: “Most journals are difficult to access and prohibitively expensive for anyone outside of academia,” write Biswas and Kierchherr. Further, Nicholas Kristof writes in The New York Times that academic “goobledygook” is often “hidden in obscure journals” – meaning the important work we are doing in many areas of rhetoric might be seen as just that. The open-access journal movement would seem an easy answer to some of these issues, but, even still, the nature of the articles themselves, Biswas and Kierchherr claim, would still make the use of such work prohibitive for the general public: “…the incomprehensible jargon and the sheer volume and lengths of papers (often unnecessary!) would still prevent practitioners (including journalists) from reading and understanding them.”

So, for change in this realm to happen, we must first consider how and where we publish our work. If we truly want to make an impact beyond our university walls, we must consider revising our academic work to fit more popular media formats – considering length, tone, and diction – and reach out to publish in popular media from time to time. Kristof exclaims: “professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks – we need you!” The journalist in me wholeheartedly agrees.

But then again, what good will our time spent writing for public contexts and popular media for us as scholars in need of a paying job? This charge doesn’t seem an easy one to meet. Many still may feel that public commentary simply is not worthwhile or perhaps will even penalize it. Will McCants, of the Brookings Institute, writes in The New York Times, “Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research. This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-review publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.” In 2014, the International Studies Association even put forth a proposal that would bar its journal editors from blogging. After much protest, the proposal was tabled, but the point is that someone in that association thought this might be a plausible idea.

Is it time, then, that we further problematize what the university values and what counts for tenure and promotion? In 2016, why shouldn’t a popular media piece which engages the public in academic research have some weight toward these university goals? As Briwas and Kiercherr posit, “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.”

Why, in addition to impressing small groups of people, isn’t our work on popular media sources, social media, professional blogs, and other public spaces part of the package considered on a more frequent basis? While we may informally acknowledge these efforts, is it time that such public writing work is formally and officially considered, too?

While some may scoff at the idea of popular media and its place in our academic publication records, we should also consider the ability for such work to generate public conversation and demonstrate practical relevance of our research work to an outside audience. While “high impact” journals are frequently touted for their ability to make an impact, I ask that we consider what this impact really means. How often will we have the ability to reach the masses with our important findings if we aim only to publish in academic journals? What if we could pen a version of such work for public space– and then having this commentary actually count for our vitas? Can we negotiate a space in which our work in the public realm can be counted as something more than just a byline?

Our work matters, and the world needs our voices. It’s time that the solid work we do to engage with those outside of our academic spaces counts for a bit more, too.

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