10/28/2013 11:23 am ET Updated Dec 28, 2013

Making It Win-Win

At first glance, the odds against turning it into a win-win situation seem long. The gap between the broader public and the academy appears wide and antagonistic. "Why Do They Hate Us?" asks the Chronicle of Higher Education. Inside Higher Ed is more specific: "It is clear that professors and universities are now part of the political rhetoric." Quoting the chair of the Academic Senate at California State University at Long Beach, Inside's story adds: "At a time when the global economy depends on brains and not brawn, public support for education is at an all-time low."

On the other side, a significant number of faculty feel both overworked and underpaid.
In an article titled "Why Academics Suffer Burnout," Inside Higher Ed suggests, "The days when academe was a low-stress working environment are over."

Part of the problem is a communications gap. Each year the federal government spends billions of dollars supporting faculty research. Yet the public is often puzzled as to how and why these public monies are spent. The public mainly sees publications phrased in "academese" - the styles of prose common in academic journals -- which relatively few understand. They ask: Why spend billions when the outcomes and benefits of such research appear unintelligible?

Intriguingly, the academic system seems to perpetuate this communications gap. Faculty tenure and promotion standards frequently emphasize academic "citation counts" -- the number of times other scholars cite a particular faculty member in academic journals. The data are collected by large databases, such as ISI Essential Science Indicators, searching through academic journals. A Carnegie Foundation report observes more than one-third of the faculty studied believe the publications on which they are evaluated for tenure and promotion are mostly assessed in terms of quantity rather than quality. At schools with doctoral programs, the figure is over 50 percent.

Deborah Rhode, in discussing this study, writes, "Because academic reputation and rewards are increasingly dependent on publication, faculty have incentives to churn out tomes that will advance their careers regardless of whether they will also advance knowledge." In other words, there is a push to write scores of publications about research the public does not understand but which faculty still hope the public will spend billions of dollars to support.

There is no doubt that academic journals are critically important in advancing scholarship and research. But what would happen if the reward structure was changed? What if instead of focusing only on citations counts in academic journals as the primary path to promotion, citations in public media were counted as well? The research and its benefits could then be described -- either by reporters or by the researchers themselves -- in more comprehendible terms for larger audiences. The "academese" favored in academic journals could at least be accompanied by equally robust presentation of findings for lay readers.

This is where the Faculty Media Impact Project comes in. The Project assesses the degree to which faculty in various universities and departments are cited in the public media -- paralleling with public media what ISI does with academic journals. It involves more than 6,000 news sources relating to 12,777 professors at 94 universities in the social sciences.

The Faculty Media Impact Project provides schools and departments with a straightforward means to assess who is, and is not, being cited in the popular media and, hence, who is, and is not, helping to bridge the public-academic divide. It allows faculty to be rewarded -- during the tenure and promotion process -- for their popular media citations just as they are now being rewarded for their academic citations.

It could be a difference that makes a difference. By helping the broader public to better understand the research it funds, the public would be more inclined to value and support it. Faculty, with their research better understood, might increase their chances for both funding and recognition.

The Faculty Media Impact Project shows the means to do this are in our hands now. All that stands between us and a win-win situation is our willingness to think in new, holistic ways about how not only to advance science, but to advance public understanding.