Academics Cost Less Than Journalists

Quality Journalism Is Increasingly Using Academics—and Should Use Even More

Last month Brad DeLong wrote,

“The problem with the @WashingtonPost (and the @NYTimes) is that it sells itself as a trusted intermediary interested in informing you while it is actually focused on seizing your eyeballs so that it can sell them to advertisers”

It’s true that both papers have had financial problems and need eyeballs to sell to advertisers.  But Brad is being a bit unfair. Both papers produce a lot of quality journalism and I’m sure their editors would love to prioritize being a “trusted intermediary” above all else. Unfortunately, unlike Brad, who has a university salary, their journalists need to get paid. One solution is staring DeLong, one of the original academic bloggers, in the mirror: more academics producing journalism.

In fact, this past year the number of academics writing for journalistic outlets grew substantially with the founding of the UpShot at the NYT, which followed in the footsteps of WonkBlog at the Washington Post. (DeLong gave WonkBlog as an example of a trusted intermediary.) Many forces drive this trend, including an increasingly complex world needing increasingly expert analysts and academics intent on branding themselves.

But, perhaps out of politeness, no one is talking about the economic forces behind the trend. For a newspaper, academics are cheaper than journalists. And given quality journalism’s financial problems, academics are what they can afford. Continue reading

More Than Big Data Needed for Estimates as Good as Randomized Clinical Trials: Prospective Observational Causal Studies

A research methods post…

Bill Gardner is cautiously—very cautiously—hopeful that big data from electronic health records (EHRs) will enable unbiased estimates of the effects of medical treatment, without any randomized controlled trials.  Gardner’s hope, his caution and his description of the data needed—“all the factors that determine who gets what treatment”—are all right on the mark. And EHRs will massively increase data on detailed clinical factors that drive clinical decisions.

But I fear researchers will focus only on the data laying around in EHRs. To cure confounding, you need to go out and measure all the confounders—everything related to both treatment and outcome. Continue reading

Are 90% of academic papers really never cited? Searching citations about academic citations reveals the good, the bad and the ugly

“90% of papers published in academic journals are never cited.” This damning statistic from a 2007 overview of citation analysis recently darted about cyberspace. A similar statistic had made the rounds in 2010 but that time it was about 60% of social and natural science articles that were said to be uncited. Neither statistic came with a link to supporting academic research papers.

That lack of support was a problem for me. I did not doubt the basic truth that many academic papers are uncited. But to be sure 90% was not urban legend and to learn the context and caveats, I needed to find the original research paper. I was not the only one who wanted the supporting evidence.  So, I dove into Google scholar, searching the disparaged academic literature for articles on academic citation rates.

What’s the truth? Continue reading

Journalists Need More Than Free Access to Best-Selling Academic Papers

Ezra Klein thinks he understands the real reasons Nicholas Kristof is frustrated with academics. It’s not that we write badly. That’s actually good, at least for journalists’ livelihoods: Since academics “write in jargon but speak in English,” journalists can “arbitrage,” translating academics’ work for the public. So, Klein is not focused on helping academics reach the public themselves, as I was in my reaction to Kristof.

Klein believes journalists’ real problems with academics are that academic journals are “wildly expensive” and there is no “academic equivalent of a best-seller’s list,” making it hard to find interesting papers.

I am skeptical. I think Klein vastly under-estimates the distance that most academic writing and most academics would have to travel to be relevant and understandable to journalists. His suggestions, while laudable, won’t bridge much of that gap.

My skepticism comes from my own experiences in academia, particularly too many hours scrutinizing endless equations or convoluted writing trying to tell if an academic paper in my own field was convincing or useful. And I fear that many academics cannot extract from our work what matters to the public and explain it clearly. In fairness, much of what we academics do is intrinsically complex.

I suspect that Klein is optimistic about journalists and academics’ papers because he unconsciously envisions many academics like the ones he hangs out with.  They explain well and have their pulse on what matters for the public. And there is another problem with Klein’s optimism: quite frankly, most journalists are not going to “get” complex analytical material as well as he does. Continue reading

The Ferocious Winds Blowing Us Towards Inequality For All: Four Ways to Stop Over-promising about Higher Education

During the closing credits of Robert Reich’s documentary, Inequality for All, some of those profiled describe how, now inspired, they plan to take action against inequality. Erika Vaclav—Costco worker, mother, former owner of a foreclosed Condo and wife of laid-off Circuit City manager—plans to follow her husband into higher education. With the song 9-to-5 playing in the background, she says proudly, “I want to become a lawyer.”

My heart sinks. Erika doesn’t know that law school graduates now struggle to get jobs or that lawyers’ earnings and job security have plummeted. Erika envisions a law degree taking her permanently into the middle class. I envision it leaving her with much debt and few job prospects.

The jobs of the highly educated are not immune to the information revolution or globalization. Lawyers are hurting in part because software can do discovery (searching documents for relevant information) more cheaply than live lawyers. Other educated workers are also likely to be hit by the ferocious winds of the Information Revolution blowing towards inequality.

Professors, policy wonks and politicians—not just Reich but many of us—need to incorporate these forces into our policy pontifications. Let’s stop over-simplifying and stop over-promising what higher education can do. If we don’t, we’ll misdirect and mislead people like Erika. Continue reading

What Kristof and His Critics Missed: Journalism’s Obsession with Newness Helps Keep Academics Obscure—Or Why Ezra Klein is Even More Right

Nicholas Kristof ignited fierce protests—and enthusiastic support—by saying that most academics “don’t matter in today’s great debates,” because they (we!) write dreadfully and in obscure journals, rather than for broad audiences. Both Kristof and his critics got a lot right. But they focused on what academics and academia do wrong and right, missing what journalism does to make the problem worse.

Coincidentally, only weeks earlier Ezra Klein, a fantastic wonky journalist, articulated journalism’s problem, explaining why it drove him to start a new journalistic enterprise:

New information is not always — and perhaps not even usually — the most important information for understanding a topic… Today, we are better than ever at telling people what’s happening, but not nearly good enough at giving them the crucial contextual information necessary to understand what’s happened. We treat the emphasis on the newness of information as an important virtue rather than a painful compromise.

Journalistic outlets today provide news, not what Jay Rosen describes as helping “us grasp the stories we care deeply about.” Why does journalism’s obsession with newness hinder academics trying to reach broad audiences? Continue reading

All-You-Can-Learn—For One Flat Fee—U: But To Go Slower, Not Faster

On November 18, admissions opened for the University of Wisconsin system’s new “Flexible Option.” The beautifully crafted web site tells prospective students that they will be able to, “earn credit for what you know,” “advance at your own pace,” and “start when you want, at the beginning of any month and that they can choose the “All-You-Can-Learn Option …[which] allows you to master as many competency (skill) sets and pass as many assessments as you can within a three-month period for a flat tuition rate of $2,250.” Welcome to the brave new world of Competency Based Education (CBE).

Quick Rorschach test: Are you rolling your eyes with snark? Groaning with dread? Or is your heart beating faster and your face flushing with wide-eyed wonder? Continue reading