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Where do public-facing political scientists go now?
This guest post—a first at Systematic Hatreds!—is written by Nick Davis, assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama.
Despite dramatic changes to academia over the last half-century, one thing is unchanged: publishing remains the coin of the realm. Although research universities have long demanded their faculty publish in journals and university presses, these days colleges large and small, famous and aspirationally famous, expect their faculty to undergo the long, dark ordeal of peer review to demonstrate that they can ply their trade.
Outside of a select few institutions, however, in what venue a scholar publishes probably matters less than what the public thinks (although academics certainly have opinions about prestige). The arms race to increase publication volume for tenure and promotion means that the likelihood of publishing in any journal, much less a fancy one, is comically low. Outside of a charmed (or cursed) circle of institutions, a publication in a peer-reviewed venue is a publication in a peer-reviewed venue. And, after all, university decision-makers are bean counters who know little of disciplinary standards across most of academic fields they shepherd. What are they going to do—read and judge the research themselves? (As the old saw has it: the bastards can’t read, but they can count).
The trouble with this arrangement—besides wildly enriching publishers, incentivizing charlatans, and maybe amplifying replication crises—is that it encourages knowledge to be produced only to languish in the pages of paywalled journals. The coin of the realm isn’t readily convertible to capital in the rest of the world.
That is sad! Much of this work might help people beyond academia understand the complicated world around them, but it is either locked away or not fit for public consumption. After all, it’s not like freeing this research without simultaneously increasing its legibility would necessarily be useful to the average reader, who doesn’t understand complex statistics or turgid academic jargon.
Over the past decade, we saw glimmers of hope that another world was possible. Both the rise of social media and public-facing blogs with wide audience reach transformed how scholars interacted with the public and shared their work. And yet, as laid out below, even these opportunities have proved fleeting. Recent tectonic shifts within the site formerly known as Twitter and these public-facing blogs have undone much of this progress.
In no small part, social media—blogs originally, but really Twitter in the end—made it possible for academics to leverage their credentials to speak to current events and crises in ways that favored the bold. To the extent that any scholar has a personality beyond “I know things!,” Twitter removed the barriers of entry for motivated academics to share themselves with the world—and, more consequentially, to communicate their research-inspired takes in less than 280 characters.
Suddenly, scholars who weren’t at major institutions could build an audience and break through the traditional silos of academia to market their expertise in a wider knowledge economy. Sociologists became public health professionals; political scientists talked baseball. physicists started forecasting elections. And nearly everyone became an expert in public law.
These public-facing academic accounts didn’t just happen in a vacuum. They grew alongside the evolution of the modern reporter. The demand for evidence-based journalism—i.e. words accompanied by numbers—was what made sites like Grantland (RIP), Vox, and 538 (also RIP, mostly) rise in popularity. Traditional venues like The Economist, Financial Times, and The New York Times embraced it, too. Data journalism was big business.
To some extent, this development reduced academics’ first-mover advantage. Whatever market share that academics had cornered was threatened by a cohort of data journalists who could move into the market that had been created. With their own ability to make sense of complex topics with numbers and, crucially, the preexisting institutional resources to reach wide audiences immediately – the need to consult online scholar-experts was diminished.
To make matters more frustrating for enterprising academics, Twitter (RIP, too) has faltered under the weight of its rebranding. Under new ownership, X increasingly plays host to accounts amplifying hate speech and trolls and bots that strategically sow disinformation. Even its infrastructure has gone to … heck, with the sacking of key employees and the implementation of pay-for-verification.
Suddenly, social media was a lot less friendly to the public-facing scholar. Perhaps unsurprisingly, academics began posting their notice to vacate. Accounts that had accumulated tens of thousands of followers declared they were bailing for other social media platforms like Mastodon (an empty void) and Bluesky (a Twitter clone). These nicer digs, however, came at the expense of the audience, both public and across silos, that had been one of the advantages of social media in the first place.
Beset by competition for scarce intellectual space and a discursive environment that resembles an outhouse, the future of exchanges between academic and lay audiences would have to take place elsewhere.
The second development that helped dredge academic insights from the ivory tower involved the ascendance of blogs that survived the transition from Internet v.1.0. Collaboratives in the political science blogosphere like Mischiefs of Faction and The Monkey Cage featured pithy, quick, and interesting takes on political and social matters from experts. In the heyday of the blogroll, when the Internet felt fresh and even fun, these sites flourished.
Although there were many more (some of which still remain), those two blogs were so successful that they were gobbled up by Vox and The Washington Post, respectively. While the Mischiefs of Faction had a semi-regular cast of bloggers (who were open to outside solicitations), The Monkey Cage assumed a new form in version 2.0 at the Post and opened itself up to submissions and commissioned pieces. Academics could pitch how their work spoke to current events and crises in ways that ordinary journalists were ill-prepared to do. Often, these short essays were insightful; sometimes, they were a little awkward, as scholars rushed to explain why their research could explain some bad thing that had just happened. (I published there myself; lovely people!) Either way, the reach and exposure were incredible for academics who were used to talking only among themselves in overpriced hotel lobbies.
The downsides to this institutionalization of casual research takes, however, were nontrivial. First, the Post paywalled the blog alongside its premium content. Newspapers must turn a profit; fair enough. But a byproduct of the move was to limit who could read the content in the first place, undercutting some of the theoretical motivation of public-facing scholarship. Second, the editorial process could be laborious. The move to the Post meant an increase in stylistic demands (good) and imposing a studiously, pointedly neutral voice (homogenizing and a little dull). And, even with the new digs, contributors didn’t get compensated – unless you could convince department chairs, deans, and the like that public-facing scholarship was, in and of itself, worth something. (A challenge that still remains.)
Still, these websites offered alluring exposure to a wide swath of academics…until they disappeared overnight, as Vox broke with the makers of Mischief and the Post locked up the Monkey Cage.
Today, it is hard not to feel like the curtain has closed on one era of public-facing scholarship. With the traditional social media environment imploding and venues to share such work closing shop, the playing field feels less level and less fun. For junior, precarious, and even well-situated academics, these losses are deeply felt.
New ventures will continue to arise (Mischiefs of Faction is looking for a new leadership team!), but the old equilibrium won’t be easily restored. To be sure, in a new twist just this last month, the Monkey Cage crew relaunched an effort to produce public-facing work under the banner Good Authority. No longer open to outside submissions, the new website now functions more like TMC version 1.0 but with a larger roster and a professionally edited “voice”. The bench of content producers is certainly deep and diverse. These folks are professionals, and the site will provide a service. But, no longer open to outside submissions, it simply cannot play the role of its predecessor.
To some extent these developments mirror the malaise experienced by other public institutions, which perennially face the challenge of meeting demands on thin budgets. The problems here aren’t behavioral, they’re structural: How can writers take esoteric content and make it palatable to a mass audience? How do editors vet these public-facing thoughts to quickly disseminate the relevant insights? How collaborative is that editorial process, and how do institutions avoid the incentives that shifts the expert to pundit or neuters the voice of the author? Since none of this is likely to be profitable, how is an institution supposed to do this for free? (And without, I might add, reinforcing the old hierarchies?)
Producing high-quality, public-facing writing is a collective action problem. Someone must supply non-revenue-generating content, provide editorial services and coordinate with authors, and host the website. None of that is cheap! It takes a tremendous amount of individual effort and entrepreneurial gumption to produce and disseminate public-facing work. The folks who built The Monkey Cage and Mischiefs of Faction deserve credit for that. But how will that be done again? In a world beset by a minefield of hidden curricula, gatekeepers, and corporate greed, it feels like the walls constraining public-facing scholarship continue to close.
All is not lost. Bluesky has revived stagnant social and professional interactions among many social scientists, for example. Many academics have shifted to producing lively newsletters!
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But I confess that I cannot shake the sense of disappointment that we—including, perhaps, academia’s professional organizations—still haven’t figured out how to tap into the supply of folks who can produce public-facing content and share our knowledge with the world. Perhaps the incentives are still lagging—public facing scholarship, after all, does not a fancy journal publication make, which returns us to the problem we began with. And then there are the economic challenges. If news sites struggle to stay afloat in an era of declining revenues, then political science blogging faces an even sharper uphill climb given its lower revenues to start with.
Still, the door hasn’t closed yet. Creative energy abounds. If there is a silver lining, then perhaps it is that a diverse group of scholars have gotten a taste of how sharing their research feels.
Perhaps new collaborations will emerge from those experiences that can continue to democratize the distribution of knowledge. However, if associations won’t take on this role, and if funders are interested in established brands, then the era of entrepreneurial outreach will be replaced by an era of more walled gardens—manicured and beautiful, to be sure, but a little remote.