15 Feb 2012

An academic failure to serve the public good

This post is an update on my continuing thoughts about being an effective economist and public intellectual (see this and this). Next week I will discuss blogging as a means of changing ideas and policies, but this post is about the core mission of academics: serving the public interest by improving the quality of our ideas and the way we think.

Unfortunately, it's more of a lament over failure (with diagnosis of its causes) than an optimistic appraisal or recipe for improvement.

Let's start with the assumption that an academic professor or researcher is paid to promote new ideas and teach students.

Now, we need to somehow measure and prioritize outputs. Teaching output is relatively easy to measure (student evaluations and progress), but not as important as research that changes how we think of the world.

Research impact is, unfortunately, difficult to measure. The current method relies on "impact," which basically boils down to publishing in "top" journals. (A top journal is one that other journals tend to cite more often.)

Now it gets ugly, since it's pretty common to just count one's publications and give more weight to those that appear in top journals. The actual content of articles is less important.

The importance of this "publish or perish" model has resulted in a massive increase in the number of papers presenting incremental (often trivial) changes on established themes (supply of ideas) and a proportionate increase in the number of journals accepting less-than-stellar papers (demand for ideas).

This "market" suffers in two ways. First, academics spend very little time on promoting their ideas once they are published. Second, those ideas are often irrelevant to the real world.

The result is too many papers that nobody can read in journals that nobody has heard of. And by "nobody," I don't just mean the public. I also mean other academics. They are often too busy on with their own writing to read. (Very few can even keep track of all the "relevant" papers in their specialty; reading -- when it occurs -- is often limited to the title, abstract and journal name. Only graduate students read articles from start to finish.)

Although I'd prefer that academics change their work ethic to do the right thing (spending more time writing and marketing fewer better papers), I'm afraid that most of them are going to continue to publish irrelevant rubbish. Some do it out of habit (they prefer a system that gave them success) and others don't care about serving the public, but the majority cannot be bothered to spend individual time on a collective action problem that concerns everyone (my preferred solution is here).

That said, there are some small moves in the right direction, towards easier public access to academic journals or becoming more relevant, but nothing big is going to happen until academics must compete to serve the public good instead of engaging in practices that are best described as a circlejerk.

Bottom Line: Academics need to produce and transmit knowledge that's useful to the public. The current system of publish or perish gives them little incentive to do so.


gormk said...

Well said- excellent analysis David! I will link/reblog this for our Norwegian audience at MILJØØKONOMENE over the weekend!

VM said...


And the same for many companies, that say they care about their customers but in fact care more about their image in the newspaper. This includes HEMA, NRC Handelsblad and NS.

Back to academics: currently the publishers largely decide what is hot, what will be published, and so where the research money goes.

Deborah S. said...

Some universities have tried to address that by creative cooperative extensions with a public service mission. As (non-publishing, M.S. degree only) faculty at one of these, I spend 100% of my time working for the public. We also work with a lot of full professors who get research contracts on public projects through the Extension.

chris corbin said...

Amen. You already know I have troubles keeping up with my reading– much less cuddling up with a journal article.

I'm all for a shift from "publish or perish" to "blog or bust". Rumor has it young adults are reading more than their parents at the same age–it's just not (books) or journal article they're reading.

Even better, it blogs are measurable. The analytics will let them know if they're adding any value.

I don't worry about the credibility/accuracy issue. That's what comment boxes and other blogs are for.

GS said...

You make good points, although my experience in Neuroscience wasn't quite as bad.

Tim said...

Great post, David. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

DW said...

If you want to be more effective in changing water policy, move back to California and get yourself appointed to the California Water Commission and other key water policymaking bodies. If you want to play the game, you have to get dirty and become a player. Living in another country and sending out emails won't cut it. While you're waiting to get appointed to a policymaking board or commission, start up a 501c3 foundation like Peter Gleick did and
get your opinions printed in major media outlets around the state. Build buddies with Jerry Brown and key state elected officials who make the appointments.

That's what I would do if I were young and energetic and wanted to help shape the future of water policy.

HA said...

Nice post though most academics and grad students already know that and, unfortunately, you're basically preaching to the choir.

David Zetland said...

@Deborah -- I've always held that an MS is more useful for reality...

@Chris -- see next post, on blogging.

@DW -- Your comment fails on "get yourself appointed," since I see little interest in reform in CA. I prefer to live in a country that manages its water (and other things) well. I also prefer to focus on policy analysis where there's a snowball's chance that someone will listen. Peter can take care of CA.

@HA -- Non-academics need to see the depth of our dysfunction (in case they give too much credence to "professors")

Jay said...

Based on your description the intrinsic motivations and the extrinsic motivations are not providing the positive externalities that justify public subsidies.

If this is the case then the solution is probably to reduce the subsidy. Your argument is that there is an over suppply of low quality research being done. I have seen the same result in my professional field (civil engineering).

On the other hand (a favorite phrase of economists) subsidizing research (and researchers) is an activity with a very long time horizon and short term trends may not be good indicators of value.

Another possibility is that technologies are disrupting the status quo - which is always a concern for those involved in industries subject to changes.

I think the way that the economics profession has failed us (you know, the public) is that it allows powerful interests (I'm thinking of politicians, business leaders, labor leaders, environmental advocates, etc.) to make self serving, false, misleading, and nonsensical statements that go unchallenged by the media or by critical thinking individuals.

Bottom Line: Aguanomics.com is an effective tool for solving the public education problem (IMHO).

BB said...

UCD Chancellor Katehi’s vision is to have UC Davis be a “world class public-private research institution.” The success, or failure, of departments is now measured by the amount of revenue they generate.

Since publication produces no income, do you think this is a good first step toward serving the public good, i.e. the public who can afford the research?

China seems to be the principal investor so far, so it must be their public good UCD is serving.

The circlejerk has changed players, methinks.

Anonymous said...

See a good example: http://www.bath.ac.uk/play/video/1328776320

EB said...

You have very good reasons to worry! These are shared e.g. by the "post-autistic economics" community.... (See, e.g., Edward Fullbrook (ed.) (2007), Real World Economics; A Post-Autistic Economics Reader, Anthem Press.)

It's true that the real-world relevance of economics is often not obvious... But I think there is a solution. It starts with 'treasure-hunting'. There are many really worthwhile contributions/insights there! Let me give a few examples:
- Keynesian macro;
- Behavioral Economics - e.g. Thaler & Sunstein's "Nudge" is highly policy-relevant!
- Keynesian macro linked to Behavioral econ, e.g. Shiller's "Irrational Exuberance" and Akerlof's "Animal Spirits";
- Amartya Sen's work on famines;
- Elinor Ostrom's work on collective action;
- Esther Duflo's experimental approach to development economics - she is a great presenter, as you can easily find by Googleing "Esther Duflo YouTube"....

How to 'measure' a 'treasure'??? Well, simply by your own enthusiasm! If you have enough enthusiasm, then you can 'sell' these ideas to your students / to the public.

This basic approach is manifest in Diane Coyle's (2007) "The Soulful Science", Princeton University Press.

There is a market out there for economic ideas that goes beyond the 'market' for "top" academic publications... For example, several books by Robert Frank, and Levitt & Dubner's Freakonomics & Superfreakonomics.

Also, there are alternative textbooks.... These may not sell to a big market, but you might use them for teaching.... again, depending on your enthusiasm. For example: Goodwin, Nelson, Ackerman & Weisskopf (2009), "Microeconomics in Context", 2nd ed., Sharpe.

I am working hard to further develop my own teaching using the basic 'enthusiasm' approach... I am currently teaching two courses, upper-level- undergrad Public Economics, and a Master's course called Challenges Facing Economic Policymakers.

SB said...

I believe the whole world is going in this direction. Information overload. At some point some smart person will figure out a solution to trying to weed through all the crap everywhere. Then, maybe there will be an incentive to produce high-value stuff.

Anonymous said...

The national labs might be the best circle jerkers of all. My dad worked at XXX for years, he refers to it as one of the country's biggest welfare programs; he couldn't bear the waste of money and lack of useful information being done in the name of the public good. I have numerous friends who work there and get paid high salaries, and I'm not sure any of them have produced or written anything of significance, and not only that, it seems we taxpayers often pay them to compete with private industry.

Eric Perramond said...

DZ - While a few days late to the party, this is a thoughtful post. Most of us in academia think this is true, of course, but it's hard to create a logical recourse.
So it's up to us to individually create or seek new outlets to create or try out new ideas. Sometimes we need to speak to each other in the language we use, as a dry run (see any academic journal volume) before we take it public. Taking it public, at least for me, means trying to frame a larger book.

For me, it's mostly about teaching, reaching the people I see every day rather than worrying about some wider societal impact. How do you reach society anyway? So, let's worry about affecting the people around us, not the people we will never see. If they read your stuff from a distance, that's a start.

The system isn't perfect, but it's not corrupt or broken. I'm heartened by the exploding number of open source journals that cost NOTHING to viewers/readers to access. That's a start that's worth applauding in my view. Keep up the good work!

CF said...

excellent post. some things about the academy are remarkably obvious but constantly overlooked.

of course, public outreach should be a number 1 or number 2 goal of all universities.

and you can do both, you know. you can build your career the traditional way, while doing the outreach as the other "half" of what you do (in a situation where, of course, the halfs add up to 2x the normal workload).

keep after 'em.

Bah said...

I think this piece is right on the money. Obviously one could add a lot of detail on the nature of universities, rankings, incentive systems, etc.

But just to say in response to EB above, that Thaler/Sunstein and Duflo (to take two) are simply a different flavor of the same problem! Dressing-up dubious work as 'rigorous' and socially relevant. Dangerous stuff.

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