Do you ever find yourself referencing a study in conversation that you didn't actually read?
I was having coffee with a friend of mine the other day, and I said, "You know, I read a new study that says coffee reduces the risk of depression in women." But really, what I read was a tweet.
That said —
"A new study says drinking coffee may decrease depression risk in women."
And that tweet had a link to the "New York Times" blog, where a guest blogger translated the study findings from a "Live Science" article, which got its original information from the Harvard School of Public Health news site, which cited the actual study abstract, which summarized the actual study published in an academic journal.
It's like the six degrees of separation, but with research.
So, when I said I read a study, what I actually read was 59 characters that summarized 10 years of research.
So, when I said I read a study, I was reading fractions of the study that were put together by four different writers that were not the author, before it got to me. That doesn't seem right. But accessing original research is difficult, because academics aren't regularly engaging with popular media. And you might be asking yourself, why aren't academics engaging with popular media? It seems like they'd be a more legitimate source of information than the media pundits. Right?
In a country with over 4,100 colleges and universities, it feels like this should be the norm. But it's not. So, how did we get here?
To understand why scholars aren't engaging with popular media, you first have to understand how universities work. Now, in the last six years, I've taught at seven different colleges and universities in four different states. I'm a bit of an adjunct extraordinaire.
And at the same time, I'm pursuing my PhD. In all of these different institutions, the research and publication process works the same way. First, scholars produce research in their fields. To fund their research, they apply for public and private grants and after the research is finished, they write a paper about their findings. Then they submit that paper to relevant academic journals. Then it goes through a process called peer review, which essentially means that other experts are checking it for accuracy and credibility. And then, once it's published, for-profit companies resell that information back to universities and public libraries through journal and database subscriptions. So, that's the system. Research, write, peer-review, publish, repeat. My friends and I call it feeding the monster.
And you can see how this might create some problems. The first problem is that most academic research is publicly funded but privately distributed. Every year, the federal government spends 60 billion dollars on research. According to the National Science Foundation, 29 percent of that goes to public research universities. So, if you're quick at math, that's 17.4 billion dollars. Tax dollars. And just five corporations are responsible for distributing most publicly funded research. In 2014, just one of those companies made 1.5 billion dollars in profit. It's a big business. And I bet you can see the irony here.
If the public is funding academics' research, but then we have to pay again to access the results, it's like we're paying for it twice. And the other major problem is that most academics don't have a whole lot of incentive to publish outside of these prestigious subscription-based journals. Universities build their tenure and promotion systems around the number of times scholars publish. So, books and journal articles are kind of like a form of currency for scholars. Publishing articles helps you get tenure and more research grants down the road. But academics are not rewarded for publishing with popular media.
So, this is the status quo. The current academic ecosystem. But I don't think it has to be this way. We can make some simple changes to flip the script.
So, first, let's start by discussing access. Universities can begin to challenge the status quo by rewarding scholars for publishing not just in these subscription-based journals but in open-access journals as well as on popular media. Now, the open-access movement is starting to make some progress in many disciplines, and fortunately, some other big players have started to notice. Google Scholar has made open-access research searchable and easier to find. Congress, last year, introduced a bill that suggests that academic research projects with over 100 million or more in funding should develop an open-access policy. And this year, NASA opened up its entire research library to the public. So, you can see this idea is beginning to catch on. But access isn't just about being able to get your hands on a document or a study. It's also about making sure that that document or study is easily understood.
So, let's talk about translation. I don't envision this translation to look like the six degrees of separation that I illustrated earlier. Instead, what if scholars were able to take the research that they're doing and translate it on popular media and be able to engage with the public? If scholars did this, the degrees of separation between the public and research would shrink by a lot. So, you see, I'm not suggesting a dumbing-down of the research. I'm just suggesting that we give the public access to that research and that we shift the venue and focus on using plain language so that the public who's paying for the research can also consume it.
And there are some other benefits to this approach. By showing the public how their tax dollars are being used to fund research, they can begin to redefine universities' identities so that universities' identities are not just based on a football team or the degrees they grant but on the research that's being produced there. And when there's a healthy relationship between the public and scholars, it encourages public participation in research. Can you imagine what that might look like?
What if social scientists helped local police redesign their sensitivity trainings and then collaboratively wrote a manual to model future trainings? Or what if our education professors consulted with our local public schools to decide how we're going to intervene with our at-risk students and then wrote about it in a local newspaper? Because a functioning democracy requires that the public be well-educated and well-informed. Instead of research happening behind paywalls and bureaucracy, wouldn't it be better if it was unfolding right in front of us?
Now, as a PhD student, I realize I'm critiquing the club I want to join.
Which is a dangerous thing to do, since I'm going to be on the academic job market in a couple of years. But if the status quo in academic research is to publish in the echo chambers of for-profit journals that never reach the public, you better believe my answer is going to be "nope." I believe in inclusive, democratic research that works in the community and talks with the public. I want to work in research and in an academic culture where the public is not only seen as a valuable audience, but a constituent, a participant. And in some cases even the expert. And this isn't just about giving you guys access to information. It's about shifting academic culture from publishing to practice and from talking to doing.
And you should know that this idea, this hope — it doesn't just belong to me. I'm standing on the shoulders of many scholars, teachers, librarians and community members who also advocate for including more people in the conversation. I hope you join our conversation, too.