Publish and vanish

Nicholas Kristof laments the wide gap between scholarship and policy debate.

Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates. […]

Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook.

To this we could add blogs. Yes, the presence of academics in the blogo- and Twitter-spheres is growing, but perhaps too slowly and, in some cases, with lackluster engagement.

There are at least two, related, explanations for this. For one, the cost is too damn high. I don’t mean the monetary cost of running a blog or joining Twitter. That’s basically zero. I mean the cost in time and in — oh how do I put this? — trollish or obnoxious crap. I’m not suggesting people should put academics on pedestals or that academics deserve to be protected from the same pushback everyone else who expresses themselves publicly receives. They should not. I’m just saying dealing with it is a cost, and probably one that can’t and shouldn’t be substantially reduced.

Second, academics are generally not directly rewarded professionally for translation and dissemination work, particularly via new and social media. Promotion and tenure is usually based on number and prestige of scholarly publications, classroom teaching, and “service” (e.g., roles on institutional committees). Of these, publishing is the most uncertain and angst-ridden process. “Publish or perish,” is a familiar characterization. But, if by publishing only in obscure academic journals, one disappears from broader, public view, perhaps we should say, “Publish and vanish.”

I’ve heard the focus on publications, teaching, and service is changing at a few colleges and universities, but not many, and slowly. When I was up for promotion I presented my blogging portfolio as a component of “teaching.” Sure, I’m not teaching students in a classroom — those that paid tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege — but I am trying to educate a broader community about the work of my and related academic fields. That should count for something, and in my case I think it did. And I would be lying if I didn’t say there are indirect rewards (even monetary) from blogging. But they’re not large.

Nevertheless, the cost is high (and unlikely to fall) and the reward is low (but could be raised) for most academics. That being the case, it’s not surprising that few engage. It’s a shame. Kristof is right, it’s a broad, social loss.


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