Media glare a tempting lure for academics

“Publish or perish” has long been the axiom in academia, where having research work appear in prestigious scholarly journals is often the yardstick used to determine tenure and other types of advancement.

But landing in the pages of The New York Times or other high-visibility media is becoming increasingly important to researchers — and that trend may not all be for the good.

Exhibit A, writes Noam Scheiber in the Times: The first day of an annual weeklong conference convened by the Cambridge-based National Bureau of Economic Research is now devoted to “research that will make a splash.”

It’s a far cry from the days when many scholars had a meh-like attitude toward coverage of their work in the popular press. Academic fields that “once regarded the ability to attract attention with suspicion, increasingly reward it,” writes Scheiber.

He says that has been a theme of talk among academics in recent days following the retraction by the journal Science of a paper that reported a provocative finding regarding the effect gay door-to-door canvassers can have in shifting people’s views on same-sex marriage. Questions were raised about the study data and the author admitted to misrepresenting the funding sources sponsoring the work.The study garnered big headlines in the Times and other outlets, and was even featured on an episode of public radio’s This American Life.

There is a growing world of media outlets hungry for data-focused stories that research studies can provide. From Vox to the Washington Post‘s “Monkey Cage” blog (which is itself  largely written by political scientists) and the Times‘s Upshot, there are all sorts of new avenues for media exposure for academic research.

The University of California, Berkeley, economist who chooses the line-up for the big Cambridge economics conference, which is held in July, says, “I choose papers that are going to be written up” by the media. “It’s what the people want.”

The recent study on same-sex marriage attitudes went through the peer-review process at Science. But one researcher who has published in the journal tells Scheiber reviewers sometimes come back with instructions to spice up the implication of findings to “make the conclusion broader, more spectacular.”

Meanwhile, Tufts political scientist Daniel Drezner tells him foundations looking to fund research also have an eye on its potential for media coverage. Nobel-Prize-winning researcher James Heckman says, “Many young economists realize that they win a MacArthur or the Clark prize, or both, by being featured in The Times.”

There’s nothing wrong with the worlds of academic research and media coverage coming closer together. Indeed, as Vox’s Ezra Klein tells Scheiber, having public policy debates grounded in rigorous evidence is a plus.

But findings can be subject to different interpretations. As more research gets pushed out into public light, says Scheiber, it puts more pressure on journalists to “distinguish good science from shoddy science,” something they’re not necessarily trained to do. The danger, of course, is that media reporting on research might not help elucidate a topic but instead might make for a confusing cacophony.


Gov. Charlie Baker announces $83 million in MBTA upgrades to avoid another winter shutdown. (WBUR) The governor also rules out new tax revenues for the transit agency, saying the T can generate revenue by increasing ridership and selling real estate and advertising. (CommonWealth)

State Treasurer Deb Goldberg will offer 12 weeks of paid parental leave to employees in her office. (Associated Press)


Two missing pieces of artwork were found in the main Copley Square headquarters of the Boston Public Library — misfiled only 80 feet from where they were supposed to be. Library president Amy Ryan, who was forced out earlier this week by the Walsh administration over the issue, says she feels vindicated but still plans to leave her post. (Boston Globe) Attorney Josh Davis says the incident highlights the mayor’s political impatience. (WBUR)

Brockton officials are questioning why state emergency officials did not have enough supply of bottled water, forcing them to pay a higher price from an outside vendor after a water main broke in the city last week. (The Enterprise)

Weymouth is looking to double the fines for parking violations. (Patriot Ledger)


Boston 2024 proposes New Bedford as the site for Olympic sailing events. (State House News)


US Rep. James McGovern calls Congress “the poster child for cowardice” for not giving President Obama authority to use military force against the Islamic State. (Telegram & Gazette)

Three New England congressmen, including Reps. Seth Moulton and William Keating, convince key House lawmakers to provide funds for fishing boat monitors. (Salem News)

More than 40 years after its passage, the National Review still has issues with Title IX and the magazine’s editors call for its repeal, saying it is unnecessary and has the potential for abuse.

President Obama and his family will vacation on Martha’s Vineyard again this summer. (Cape Cod Times)


Hillary Clinton will head to Provincetown in July to drum up campaign cash. (Cape Cod Times)


The $1.6 billion Barr Foundation, long known for its secrecy and anonymous giving, is becoming a much more public presence around Boston under its new president, Jim Caneles. (Boston Globe)

A non-binding shareholder vote opposes lavish payouts scheduled for Vertex Pharmaceutical executives if a new cystic fibrosis drug turns the company profitable. (Boston Globe)

A $100 million mixed-use project is proposed in Dorchester, billed as a “mid-market” alternative to the luxury housing sprouting across Boston. (Boston Herald)


Scot Lehigh spends time at Phoenix Charter Academy and comes away impressed by the Chelsea alternative charter high school’s relentless work to get one-time dropouts through high school and on to college. Phoenix was the focus of this CommonWealth cover story last summer.

A Lynn man is arrested for standing outside an elementary school dressed as a Star Wars stormtrooper with a plastic gun. The school went into lockdown when the man was spotted. (Salem News)

The Worcester School Committee approves a resolution calling for a three-year halt to high-stakes testing. (Telegram & Gazette)

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, looking to burnish his conservative bona fides for a potential run for president, has made proposals to give a board he controls the power to curtail tenure and change curriculum in the state’s public colleges. (New York Times)


An advisory panel of the Food and Drug Administration has recommended approval of the so-called “Viagra for women” pill, making it the first drug to treat lowered sexual desire in women to receive approval after 25 such drugs for men have been on the market. (New York Times)


The Baker administration revises downward the absence rate of T workers from 11-12 percent to 8.6 percent. (CommonWealth)

Shirley Leung makes the case for suspending the anti-privatization Pacheco Law for the MBTA. (Boston Globe)


The Environmental Protection Agency issues a report saying fracking has no widespread impact on US water supplies. (Time)

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Lawyers for former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez have filed a motion to secretly investigate a juror on the panel that convicted the former NFL star of murder. (Herald News)


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