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July 28, 2016 Comments (0) About Education

Kevin Wolfman: Why Social Science Research is Anti-Social, Pt. II


Last month, we discussed the way the complexity of contemporary research techniques, coupled with a general lack of written communications skills, prevents many important and fascinating social-science research findings from ever reaching a non-academic audience. Today\’s research methods-especially \”quant\” methods-are so technical, and also the researchers themselves so frequently unable to explain the work they do legibly to outsiders, much of the social sciences\’ knowledge never escapes the narrow confines from 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 some wide audience are often unwilling to achieve this.

Kevin Wolfman

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 most popular good.

The basis of academic employment may be the tenure system. After earning a PhD and seizing a coveted assistant professor position in a 4-year college or university, newly minted researchers spend the first five approximately years of their careers pursuing tenure-the ultimate goal of life in the ivory tower. Over these first years, new faculty members are under considerable pressure to publish as much act as possible within their fields\’ leading peer-reviewed journals. Because it can take up to eighteen months for any submitted research paper to appear in a journal, assistant professors will often be working on several papers at any time. Add the responsibility of teaching on top of this pressure-cooker, and life like 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 in many cases are expected to publish five or even more papers within the first few many years of their careers-a borderline ridiculous pace, because of 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 usually based solely on the quantity and perceived quality from the researcher\’s work. (Teaching ability rarely plays a substantial role.) Figurative (or literal) points are awarded for every published good article, weighted through the \”prestige\” of the journal in which each piece appeared-more points for any piece published inside a journal regarded as elite, and much less points for one published inside a perceived second-tier journal. This usually is true even when the actual quality of the two papers is indistinguishable.

Most importantly for the discussion, a piece only \”counts\” during tenure review if it appeared in a single of these peer-reviewed journals. You will find often no points awarded to pieces published in \”commercial\” places. Feature articles in widely read and revered periodicals Some time and The Economist, high-profile editorials in national newspapers like The Washington Post, commercially printed titles 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 within the prestigious journal Abstract Concepts Quarterly, and read by a few hundred fellow researchers, generally carries more weight in academia than a hardcover that\’s published by Random House and read by millions.

In short, for researchers pursuing the holy grail of tenure, there is simply no reason to create anything for a non-academic audience. The machine actually punishesthose that 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 mustn\’t want tenure very much, right? Perhaps the department is going in a different direction.

But what about all the years after tenure? Won\’t researchers considerably more eager to write for any non-academic audience once their jobs are secure? Sadly, this rarely happens.

Tenure was originally created to shield researchers in the political and institutional backlash that is a result of conducting and publicizing controversial or else \”unwelcome\” research. It gives researchers the liberty to pursue truth once the powers-that-be would prefer the reality to remain hidden. Tenure is a tool designed to help researchers get to the goal of creating new knowledge and taking advantage of that knowledge to influence opinions and change the world for that better, politics and power be damned.

Unfortunately, in a lot of academia, including the social sciences, tenure is not looked at as a tool for reaching a goal. It has become the aim itself. Does everyone have this attitude? Absolutely not. But far too many do. And this is arguably the fault of the schools and departments which use tenure like 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 this bolsters the school\’s prestige-and earns it more funding, and perhaps higher U.S. News rankings, consequently. At the same time, though, the practice effectively warps the researcher\’s perspective and can dull sense at all of civic responsibility or ambition he or she may previously have possessed. The main focus becomes winning tenure, not educating society or increasing the world.

No wonder a lot of newly tenured faculty members just want to sit back and relax. They have spent the last decade or even more learning that tenure is the light at the end of the tunnel, instead of the torch that makes the journey with the tunnel easier.

Tenure is supposed to be a tool for change, not self-aggrandizement. The schools and departments which use the promise of its attainment just like a carrot (and the threat of their denial like a stick), and fuel this technique to benefit themselves in 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 offer. And researchers should be encouraged and educated to use their knowledge for public good, not just private comfort.

Bemoaning the ignorance from the general population is somewhat of a pastime in academic circles. Perhaps it is time for academia to take some more responsibility with 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\’ve an obligation to use their expertise to assist enlighten and advance society as a whole?

Kevin Wolfman is a teacher and holds a Masters degree in political science in the University of California at Davis. He\’s currently writing a magazine about the relationship between advanced schooling and political beliefs. Follow him on Twitter at @kevinwolfman.

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