Keeping Up With (and By) Academia

There’s little doubt that Ezra Klein has done a lot in his meteoric career to promote interaction between academics and journalists. It was the main premise of the much-misunderstood JournoList. It was frequently the foundation for articles at Wonkblog. So his thoughts on what academics can do to improve the dissemination of their work to journalists and the public alike are well worth reading:

The real problem is that the primary system for disseminating academic research — through professional journals and working papers — doesn’t work for anyone but academics, and it may not even work for them. Professional journals are wildly expensive to subscribe to and bizarrely difficult to keep up with. How expensive? Last year, Harvard University — yes, the place with the $30 billion endowment — concluded that “major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable.” Journal subscriptions can often run into the tens of thousands of dollars….

Cost isn’t the only problem. The journal system also fractures academic knowledge across dozens of different publications. It’s almost impossible to keep up with the papers being published. There’s no centralized list. You can’t check an academic equivalent of a best-seller’s list. Every year I attend the American Political Science Association conference and, while many of the presentations are the outgrowths of working papers rather than published papers, I’m continually stunned by how much I missed despite my best efforts to keep up. I’ve asked at least a dozen political scientists whether there’s a better way to keep current. There isn’t.

The problem, they say, isn’t just the journals — it’s that by the time work gets to the journals, it’s already past its sell-by date. The formalized process through which academic work is published obscures a surprisingly informal process by which the newest, most interesting papers are first circulated.

And that’s why the academic rebels–some big names, some obscure social scientists chafing at the medieval protocols of their profession–who participated in JournoList and then took to blogging set important precedents:

The good news is the chasm is closing. Academics have increasingly turned to the blogosphere, opening a window on academic conversations that were formerly out of view. In political science, for instance, the Monkey Cage is a minor miracle. In economics, Mark Thoma at the Economist’s View is tireless in tracking discussion across the profession.

But of course there ought to be a happy medium available to academics who don’t want to risk professional sanctions and collegial disdain by entering the world of us in-the-basement-in-our-underwear blogger, or who would like to present their full work in more accessible venues:

Still, it would be better if academics didn’t have to blog, or know a blogger, to get their work in front of interested audiences. That would require a new model for disseminating academic work — one that gets beyond the samizdat system used for working papers on the one hand, and the rigid journal publication system on the other. If academia was easier to keep up with, I think a lot of academics would be surprised to learn how many journalists care about their work, and I think a lot of journalists would be happy to find how much academic research can do for their stories.

Even us grubby bloggers would love better access to social science work. And it might put more pressure on te less-enlightened academics to keep up.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.