The New Rankings Frontier: Mentions in the Media
Scholars often despair over the dumbed-down state of public discourse.
At the same time, academics with relevant expertise can be absent from the popular news media’s treatment of the issues of the day.
What if more faculty members could be encouraged to share their knowledge with the public?
That is the idea behind a new project that seeks to quantify how often professors engage with the public through the news media. The Faculty Media Impact Project, which was announced on Tuesday, ranks social-sciences departments at 94 universities.
To devise the rankings, researchers ran searches of the Google News archive to find out how often more than 12,700 faculty members had appeared in 6,000 news sources from 2006 to 2011. The citations for the professors in each department were tallied, averaged on a per-faculty member basis, and then ranked relative to the federal funds their programs had received.
Rankings tend to be controversial because of their flaws and hidden assumptions, said Rob Borofsky, a professor of anthropology at Hawaii Pacific University and director of the Center for a Public Anthropology, which is running the project. He acknowledged that his effort was imperfect but said such qualms should not simply end all discussion of how to measure public engagement.
“People seem to complain about academic citations and yet use them. Everyone complains about rankings but uses them,” he said. “We might agree that people who take federal funding perhaps should have some civic obligations to facilitate something positive from that.”
Mr. Borofsky restricted his research to social scientists because, he said, “people dealing with social sciences should be dealing with social concerns.”
A lack of structural incentives is the underlying factor preventing more civic engagement, he said. Faculty members are judged on their research, teaching, and service. “There’s no reward for civic duty,” he said.
He hopes his methodology, or something like it, will be adopted by tenure-and-promotion committees. “It’s just widening what citation counts involve,” Mr. Borofsky said.
A Public Service
The project’s Web site ranks each institution and notes which of its social-sciences departments—anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, or sociology—scored highest.
It also quantifies each faculty member’s “citation score,” which reflects the average number of times annually that the professor appeared in the news. The highest score was 50. About 40 percent of faculty members in the survey had no citations.
Rice University appears at the top of Mr. Borofsky’s rankings, followed by Southern Methodist University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Rice encourages its faculty members to talk to the news media, said David W. Leebron, the university’s president. “We regard this as university and public service, and are grateful for it,” he said in an e-mail.
But he did not consider it of great importance that many faculty members had no media citations. Much research is valuable and of high quality, he said, while not being of interest to the public.
While some scholars who fared well in the rankings produced research of general interest, others benefited from what happened to be in the news. For example, several political-science professors in Texas had high citation scores, perhaps because their state’s governor ran for president.
Mr. Leebron also expressed skepticism that counting news-media citations would be useful in tenure-and-promotion decisions, aside from providing an indirect measure of service. “It would, in and of itself, not carry much weight,” he said.
Hogging the Microphone
George J. Armelagos, a professor of anthropology at Emory University, sees potential merit in the citations, though with some caveats. “It could be useful if it could be accurate,” said Mr. Armelagos, who has attracted attention from reporters in recent years for discovering, with his colleagues, that ancient Nubians developed and regularly consumed tetracycline, an antibiotic, in their beer.
Aside from serving an individual faculty member’s interest, appearing in the news media can benefit the university and its programs, Mr. Armelagos said. “It’s a way of getting attention to the department,” he said.
But, he added, academic culture often dissuades faculty members from seeking the spotlight, particularly if they are early in their careers and have yet to firmly build their academic bona fides.
“The senior people will think you’re trying to establish your career by popularizing and getting notice in the newspapers,” he said. “You don’t want to be thought of as not wanting to pass the microphone.”
There is also little reward and large risk to faculty members engaging with the news media, said Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy who blogs at Foreign Policy. Complicated ideas often get misinterpreted, misrepresented, or stripped of their nuances. Or reporters simply get things wrong.
And if a faculty member is too good at talking to the news media, he said, that can be a problem, too.
“The perception is that if you’re quoted widely in the press, you’re an empty head,” Mr. Drezner said before summoning up the image of a vain, attention-seeking, intellectually fraudulent professor in the Harry Potter series.
“No one,” he said, “wants to be known as the Gilderoy Lockhart of their field.”