He Who Pays the Piper…

In a post on her blog Africa is a Country, Smith College Assistant Professor Kim Yi Dionne took the Atlantic to task failing to recognize the oldest play in Non-Profit Industrial Complex Playbook.  Long story short: The Atlantic published an article on sexual rights of passage in Malawi, whereby the author took some license generalizing with statistics and the entire story was sensationalized.  For good measure, Dionne shed light on the relationship between funding entities and the news or research they support:

“…The Atlantic aren’t the only ones to have picked up Grace Mwase’s story. It was also published (by different writers) in The Star (from Toronto), the Huffington Post, and in the online Malawi news agency, Nyasa Times (those versions, however, left out the “parasite-ridden lake”).

Why are we seeing this same story of this Grace Mwase across multiple outlets? Because it was an NGO set-up.

The NGO brings a girl with a sensational story, invites reporters to come and hear the story, and then these reporters who know little to nothing about the context take as truth what’s being told to them and essentially write a press release for an organization competing to win a $10,000 prize. The writer’s bonus: one more stamp in the passport, one more country she can say she’s reported from.”


This isn’t the first time time (nor will it be the last) that individuals and entities with vested interests back the production of “evidence” which coincidentally, supports a particular cause.  Last Week, on Fresh Air, Terri Gross interviewed Eric Lipton (an investigative reporter for the New York Times) on his recent article examining how public policy is influenced at the federal level by “evidence” funded by entities with agendas and ultimatums.  Unfortunately, social media has made it possible for agenda-shaded “news” stories and research articles to be read and liked and shared thousands of times before any one scholar can weigh in and set the record straight.  This does not have to be the case.

Earlier this month, Nicholas Kristoff warned that US scholars increasingly marginalize themselves and their disciplines, by being unable and unwilling to engage with “the public”. This is a reasonable observation.   For many academics in the US, peer-reviewed academic publications are the only currency that matters for tenure and promotion.  Combined with teaching duties and the service required to support bureaucratic institutions with burgeoning administrations, and the result is that the people who are most informed and well-equipped with knowledge to recognize biased research findings and suspicious relationships between funders and researchers.

This poses interesting questions about the purpose and reach of academic publishing.  What is the point of academic publishing?  In one sense, it’s purpose is to inform and educate the reader about a previously unknown phenomenon.  As it is now, the current state of academic publishing does not allow for a broad and diverse readership, because many journals are housed behind pay walls, which most readers are unwilling to traverse to access articles of interest.  The insistence on peer-reviewed publications as the only currency of importance for scholars precludes academic researchers from contributing to the public discourse on a particular issue.  Ostensibly, if this were the case, then scholars should be encouraged to engage with the public at every chance possible, by curating content for blogs, writing op-ed pieces, and participating in online discussion boards and social media.  

Is the purpose of academic publishing to provide the evidence needed for policy and programs that improve the lives of people?  Is that why academic researchers do academic research?  Maybe this was the case before Citizens United.  Perhaps this is my cynicism showing, but I no longer believe that federal policy and program decisions in the United States are based solely on compelling findings from evidence-based research.  If this were the case, efforts by the CDC to conduct research on gun violence would not have been blocked by Congress and the NRA lobby.

If we were to change the fundamental way we think about academic publishing and its purpose, we might consider mandating that researchers and scholars engage the public in more meaningful ways than they currently do.  This would kill two birds with one stone.  First, it would force academic publishing to be more accessible, thereby improving the quality of the public discourse surrounding any controversial issue.  Second, a better informed electorate would ensure that policy and programming is evidence-based with the only force equal to the power of money in politics; the vote.


Author: Jessica Bishop-Royse

Jessica Bishop-Royse is the SSRC’s Senior Research Methodologist. Her areas of interest include: health disparities, demography, crime, methods, and statistics. She often finds herself navigating the fields of sociology, demography, epidemiology, medicine, public health, and policy. She was broadly trained in data collection, Stata, quantitative research methodology, as well as statistics. She has experience with multi-level analyses, survival analyses, and multivariate regression. Outside of the work context, Jessi is interested in writing, reading, travel, photography, and sport.

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