The Case for Public Scholarship for Tenure
Tenure is a coveted milestone in the academic and professional career of a professor. It is the ultimate recognition of academic contributions and achievements, and it provides job security, academic freedom, and the ability to pursue long-term research projects. The current tenure system often rewards professors for their contributions to the narrow world of academic publications, often failing to recognize the broader impact of their work. Perhaps professors should be reviewed for promotion and tenure based not only on their academic articles but on their public articles as well.
There is limited data on the reach and scope of academic articles, but some have suggested that academic articles are read in their entirety by an average of about 10 people, with approximately 20% of cited papers actually having been read. It’s estimated that 82% of academic articles in the humanities are never cited once, with 32% of academic articles in the social sciences and 27% in the natural sciences never being cited. Other sources estimate that nearly half of all academic articles are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees, and journal editors and that 90% of academic articles are never cited.
Though these estimates may be inaccurate, common sense would tell us that public articles have a broader impact on society. While academic articles are primarily read by other academics, public articles are read by a wider audience, including policymakers, journalists, and most important, the general public, who are often ignored by ivory tower elites aiming to out-elite one another by impact factors of greater and greater specialization, resulting in lower and lower levels of accessibility.
"While academic articles are primarily read by other academics, public articles are read by a wider audience, including policymakers, journalists, and the general public, who are often ignored by ivory tower elites aiming to out-elite one another."
Public articles can influence public opinion and shape public policy, which can have a far-reaching impact on society. In contrast, academic articles often remain in the ivory tower of academia, with little impact on the wider world. Public articles also require a different set of skills than academic articles: an ability to communicate complex ideas in an accessible manner, to write for a nonexpert audience, and to engage with current events and public debates. These skills are often undervalued in academia, where the focus is on publishing in high-impact academic journals, regardless of whether the research has any real-world impact.
However, not all academics are concerned with the accessibility and real-world impact of their work. In some cases, there may be just 10 people in the world with expertise in a certain substratum of a certain discipline, so having 10 reads of an associated academic article is quite the feat. Furthermore, publishing academic articles through a rigorous peer-review process clearly establishes expertise and validates an academic’s place in the ivory tower hierarchy. If the academic incentive structure based the progress toward promotion and tenure on nonacademic output, there’s potential for tenure to turn into a popularity contest instead of an assessment of expertise based on peer review. The more accessible an article is, the less elite it could be perceived, and thus, the less expertise that may be communicated within the article.
So why not both? Public articles can potentially foster public engagement with academic research. Many in the general public are interested in learning about the latest research findings, but they may not have access to expensive academic journals or the ability to understand academic writing. By writing public articles in addition to academic articles, professors can bridge the gap between academia and the wider public, making research findings more accessible and engaging for a wider audience. Albert Einstein said it best: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
If professors are reviewed for promotion and tenure based not only on their academic scholarship but on their public scholarship as well, it may also enhance the reputation of a university. Public articles have a broader impact on society, require a different set of skills, and can foster public engagement with academic research. By writing for popular media outlets, professors can showcase their expertise and demonstrate the relevance of their research to the wider world. This can attract new students, funding, and collaborations, thereby enhancing the reputation of a university. By recognizing the importance of public scholarship, universities can better align their tenure policies with the changing needs of society and the wider world. In contrast, not recognizing public scholarship in the promotion and tenure process risks communicating the appearance of academic elites assessing how academically elite prospective academic elites are before they are deemed academic elites, leaving the general public out of the equation. We need to make higher education as accessible to Main Street as it is to the ivory tower.
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