Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why Aren't Political Scientists More Visible?

. Tuesday, January 12, 2010

In comments to this post, Emmanuel stressed that we in the IPE community should spend more time trying to raise the profile of the discipline and less time practicing fratricide. I agree.

But now I see Ezra Klein thinks that political scientists just aren't accessible to the public:

All that said, political scientists make it extremely hard for the rest of us to benefit from all that study. The papers are locked away in obscure journals accessible only by expensive subscriptions. There are relatively few blogs dedicated to applying the insights of political science to the events of the day (but more than there used to be!). I don't know of any organizations in the District dedicated to guiding journalists through the thickets of the discipline. Nor do many think tanks in Washington employ political scientists (one reason that economists are so dominant in this town is that they're everywhere, and they spend most of their time talking to journalists on the phone).


First of all, it's crazy to suggest that there are no (or few) political scientists in the District. Are they employed by think tanks? Maybe not (though some are), but why should Klein's only base of knowledge be advocacy organizations when he has a number of high-quality political science departments in high-quality universities all around him? Moreover, economics journals are behind the exact same paywalls as political science journals. And while it's true that there are fewer political science blogs than economics blogs today, there are more political science blogs today than there were economics blogs 10 years ago. It's not as if political journalists alluvasudden started ignoring political scientists, so I think the causes run deeper. And why is it that D.C. economists spend their days talking to journalists on the phone? Presumably, it's because journalists call them up and ask for their opinion, which they could just as easily do with political scientists.

First, Klein argues that the barriers to access of political science research and expertise are much higher in political science than in economics, but I don't see how that could be true. Then he switches to arguing that journalists shouldn't have to do any research or actual reporting, and should instead just reach for the most readily-apparent source. Notice:

I really like the papers I've come across from Yale's David Mayhew. Brilliant, careful stuff that's vastly enriched my understanding of Congress. But I've only read them because another political scientist thought to send them to me. And there's no obvious way for me to get more of them without badgering people for things that I don't yet know that I want. Similarly, Frances Lee's publisher recently sent me her book 'Beyond Ideology.' Great stuff, and it led to this post. But I never would've found out about it if it hadn't shown up on my doorstep.


Here's what I think: journalists rely on economists because they know that they don't understand economics. They were probably forced to take an intro econ class in undergrad, hated it, and so they immediately outsource their opinions to the first economist in their rolodex. But political journalists think they do understand politics, even when they clearly don't. They think that electoral outcomes actually depend on whether Obama drinks beer or wine or whether Hillary Clinton was crying real or fake tears. The opportunity cost of reading real research is quite high compared to just filing another horse-race story. Plus, the tawdriness sells copy.

In a previous post Klein indicated that he understood this, and he (and folks like Yglesias) have been much more open to incorporating political science into their work than, say, Thomas Friedman. So I don't want to pick on him too much. But if he is really interested in hearing what political scientists think he could pick up the phone. And if he's really interested in the research we do, he can probably convince the Washington Post to subscribe to JSTOR. He shouldn't expect it all to just show up on his doorstep.

(An aside: I can somewhat forgive journalists for this. They aren't trained to think like social scientists, and often just don't know where to look, as is clearly evident from Klein's post. It's only a half-excuse, but maybe that's better than none. What really gets me is when economists spew all sorts of lazy political commentary while complaining about how badly journalists report on economics. They should really know better, and they have easy access to political scientists. All they have to do is walk down the hall.)

UPDATE: I completely agree with this...

Every political scientist should have a webpage where ungated copies of their papers and articles are available. Period. When I want to blog about a particular political science article, I am probably going to find an ungated copy about 50% of the time. I sometimes email people to ask them to put the article on-line, but that seems an unnecessary hurdle.

I would also urge the APSA and political science journal publishers to consider making their content available for free to journalists who request it. I am told that Nature and Science will do so.

Ezra Klein loves him the political science. But the Washington Post doesn’t have a subscription to JSTOR. To be sure, free access to the wide world of political science won’t make journalists salivate over the latest issue of the APSR. But let’s at least make this problem one of demand, and not supply.


... but let's not make too much of it: Klein isn't complaining that only 50% of political science articles are ungated, he's complaining that only one or two show up on his doorstep or are specifically recommended to him by other people. And he's one of the only journalists who give even half a damn about political science. And I've never once heard of an academic refusing to disseminate their work if someone e-mails to request an ungated copy. It's also ridiculous (and possibly not true) that the Washington Post doesn't have access to JSTOR; an annual subscription costs $9,000 for corporations, which is lunch money for the Kaplan Group (which is dedicated to education services, after all).

So this is very clearly a demand issue. This is not to say that we shouldn't make all of our work more freely available. We should. But it's not as if Ezra Klein is searching and searching for political science research and just can't find any because of the blasted paywalls; he's complaining about not having enough stuff spoon-fed to him.

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