Sunday, January 17, 2010

Getting our ideas out there

Ezra Klein was kind enough to respond to my earlier post arguing about the relevance of modern political science to political journalism:
Political scientists make it extremely hard for the rest of us to benefit from all that study. The papers are locked away in obscure journals accessible only by expensive subscriptions. There are relatively few blogs dedicated to applying the insights of political science to the events of the day (but more than there used to be!). I don’t know of any organizations in the District dedicated to guiding journalists through the thickets of the discipline. Nor do many think tanks in Washington employ political scientists (one reason that economists are so dominant in this town is that they’re everywhere, and they spend most of their time talking to journalists on the phone)…journalists are making a terrible error if they judge political scientists irrelevant to the debate. But political science could do a lot more to meet those of us who want to listen halfway.
He's absolutely right, of course.  In response, John Sides urged all political scientists to make their papers available ungated on their websites, which was followed by several interesting posts about different ways to make academic work more available.

I believe this is all for the good.  But there are limits.  Even if every political science article since the beginning of time were available for free, that doesn't mean political journalists will use them.  The search engines, particularly for conference papers, usually aren't great (although Google Scholar is a big help).  But beyond that, academic papers are almost invariably... well... academic papers.  They're not written for the same audience that journalism is.  They use very different tools, language, and approaches.

By contrast, think of the medical literature.  The academic studies are, of course, written in a dense, jargon-laden language and have tentative conclusions, as in most academic disciplines.  Daily newspaper journalists rarely pull directly from the medical literature.  Rather, there are intermediaries: magazines that are devoted to digging through the medical literature and translating it into conversational English.  Stories from these magazines ultimately get picked up by newspapers.  The same is true for astronomy, physics, chemistry....  But not political science.  I'm hard pressed to name a publication devoted to translating political science literature into a more accessible form.

This is where the blogs come in.  The folks at Monkey Cage (and elsewhere) do a real service by highlighting interesting academic findings and explaining why they're relevant, and this stuff occasionally gets picked up by the general press.  I strongly encourage more political scientists to create or contribute to blogs along these lines.  There might still be a belief out there that blogging can reduce chances for tenure, but such prejudices must surely be waning, if they ever actually existed.

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