11 Apr 2015

If academics want to have an impact on policymakers and practitioners, they must consider popular media, which has been ignored by them – although media firms have developed many innovative business models to help scholars reach out.

One effective model is Project Syndicate (PS), a non-profit organisation, which distributes commentary by the world’s thought leaders to more than 500 newspapers comprising 300 million readers in 154 countries. Any commentary accepted by PS may be translated into up to 12 other languages and then distributed globally to the entire network.

Even if scholars agree on the importance of publishing in the popular media, the system plays against them.

In order to obtain tenure, scholars must churn out as many peer-reviewed articles in high-impact journals as possible. Publications in (prestigious) peer-reviewed journals continue to be the key performance indicator within academia: whether anyone reads them becomes a secondary consideration.

If the highest impact journal in the water field is considered, it has only four subscribers in India with a population of some 1.3 billion. Three years ago, neither the water minister nor those three levels below him had even heard of this journal. While a publication in such a journal will bring kudos to a professor, its impact on policymaking in India, where water is a very critical issue, is zero.

It may be about time to re-assess scholars’ performance. For tenure and promotion considerations, their impact on policy formulation and public debates should also be assessed.

Asit Biswas, Visiting Professor, in the Straits Times, 11 April 2015