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Kevin Wolfman: Why Social Science Research is Anti-Social, Pt. II
Researchers have little professional incentive to engage and educate the public, writes Kevin Wolfman.
Last month, we discussed how the complexity of modern research techniques, combined with a general lack of written communications skills, prevents many important and interesting social-science research findings from ever reaching a non-academic audience. Today’s research methods—especially “quant” methods—are so technical, and the researchers themselves so often unable to explain their work legibly to outsiders, that much of the social sciences’ knowledge never escapes the narrow confines of the ivory tower. This is only half the reason why social science research is “anti-social,” however. The disappointing truth is that even those researchers who do possess the skills to “translate” their findings to a wide audience are frequently unwilling to do so.
Why? In much of academia, including the social sciences, there is zero professional incentive for researchers to write for the “average” person, or use their knowledge to educate the public and advance the common good.
The basis of academic employment is the tenure system. After earning a PhD and seizing a coveted assistant professor position at a 4-year college or university, newly minted researchers spend the first five or so years of their careers pursuing tenure—the holy grail of life in the ivory tower. During these first years, new faculty members are under considerable pressure to publish as much work as possible in their fields’ leading peer-reviewed journals. Since it can take up to eighteen months for a submitted research paper to appear in a journal, assistant professors will often be working on several papers at any given time. Add the responsibility of teaching on top of this pressure-cooker, and life as a new researcher can be just as stressful as life in graduate school.
The strain is most pronounced at large research universities, known as “R-1” schools. Assistant professors at R-1 schools are often expected to publish five or more papers in the first few years of their careers—a borderline ridiculous pace, given the molasses-slow peer review process employed by all the respectable journals. During “tenure review,” the decision of whether or not to award tenure is often based solely on the quantity and perceived quality of the researcher’s work. (Teaching ability rarely plays a significant role.) Figurative (or literal) points are awarded for each published piece of work, weighted by the “prestige” of the journal in which each piece appeared—more points for a piece published in a journal perceived as elite, and fewer points for one published in a perceived second-tier journal. This usually holds true even when the actual quality of the two papers is indistinguishable.
Most importantly for our discussion, a piece only “counts” during tenure review if it appeared in one of these peer-reviewed journals. There are often no points awarded to pieces published in “commercial” places. Feature articles in widely read and respected periodicals TIME and The Economist, high-profile editorials in national newspapers like The Washington Post, commercially printed books like Freakonomics that crash the New York Times best-seller list and become cultural phenomena… none of these will typically count for much, if at all. A paper that is published in the prestigious journal Abstract Concepts Quarterly, and read by a few hundred fellow researchers, generally carries more weight in academia than a hardcover that is published by Random House and read by millions.
In other words, for researchers pursuing the holy grail of tenure, there is simply no reason to write anything for a non-academic audience. The system actually punishesthose who do. After all, if you spend your time penning a mass-market Random House book instead of revising and resubmitting that paper for Abstract Concepts Quarterly, well, you must not want tenure very much, right? Perhaps the department should go in a different direction.
But what about all the years after tenure? Won’t researchers be much more eager to write for a non-academic audience once their jobs are secure? Sadly, this rarely happens.
Tenure was originally created to shield researchers from the political and institutional backlash that results from conducting and publicizing controversial or otherwise “unwelcome” research. It gives researchers the freedom to pursue truth when the powers-that-be would prefer the truth to remain hidden. Tenure is a tool designed to help researchers reach the goal of creating new knowledge and using that knowledge to influence opinions and change the world for the better, politics and power be damned.
Unfortunately, in much of academia, including the social sciences, tenure is not looked at as a tool for reaching a goal. It has become the goal itself. Does everyone have this attitude? Of course not. But far too many do. And this is arguably the fault of the schools and departments that use tenure as a carrot, dangling it in front of young researchers as a way to get them to publish lots of peer-reviewed papers in the school’s name. Doing so bolsters the school’s prestige—and earns it more funding, and possibly higher U.S. News rankings, as a result. At the same time, though, the practice effectively warps the researcher’s perspective and can dull any sense of civic responsibility or ambition he or she may previously have possessed. The focus becomes winning tenure, not educating society or improving the world.
No wonder so many newly tenured faculty members just want to sit back and relax. They have spent the last decade or more learning that tenure is the light at the end of the tunnel, instead of the torch that makes the journey through the tunnel easier.
Tenure is supposed to be a tool for change, not self-aggrandizement. The schools and departments that use the promise of its attainment like a carrot (and the threat of its denial like a stick), and fuel this system to benefit themselves at the expense of educating the public, are doing both researchers and society a grave disservice. People in the “real world” need—and want—the insight that social science research can provide. And researchers should be encouraged and trained to use their knowledge for public good, not just private comfort.
Bemoaning the ignorance of the general population is somewhat of a pastime in academic circles. Perhaps it is time for academia to take some more responsibility for this knowledge deficit. Should researchers concern themselves primarily with their personal job security, their institution’s reputation, and the theoretical debates of their subject areas? Or might they have an obligation to use their expertise to help enlighten and advance society as a whole?
Kevin Wolfman is a teacher and holds a Masters degree in political science from the University of California at Davis. He is currently writing a book about the relationship between higher education and political beliefs. Follow him on Twitter at @kevinwolfman.
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