Citations are not enough: Academic promotion panels must take into account a scholar’s presence in popular media.

18 Feb 2016


Image credit: oscar cesare (Wikimedia, Public Domain)

Scholars all around the world are almost solely judged upon their publications in (prestigious) peer-reviewed journals. Asit Biswas and Julian Kirchherr argue that publications in the popular media must count as well. After all, these publications are crucial in informing practitioners’ decision-making.

Many of the world’s most talented thinkers may be university professors, but sadly most of them do not shape today’s public debates or influence policies. Indeed, scholars often frown upon publishing in the popular media. “Running an opinion editorial to share my views with the public? Sounds like activism to me”, a professor recently noted at a conference, hosted by the University of Oxford. The absence of professors from shaping public debates and policies seems to have exacerbated in recent years, particularly in the social sciences. During 1930s and 1940s, 20 percent of articles in the prestigious The American Political Science Review focused on policy recommendations. At the last count, the share was down to a meagre 0.3 percent.

Even debates among scholars do not seem to function properly. Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within the scientific community: 82 percent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once. Rarely do scholars refer to 32 percent of the peer-reviewed articles in the social and 27 percent in the natural sciences. If a paper is cited, though, this does not imply it has actually been read. According to one estimate, only 20 percent of papers cited have actually been read. We suspect that an average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read completely at most by no more than 10 people. Hence, impacts of most peer-reviewed publications even within the scientific community are miniscule.

Asit Biswasis one of the world’s leading authorities on environmental and water policy. He is the founder and president of the Third World Centre for Water Management in Mexico, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, the University of Wuhan, China as well as the Indian Institute of Technology. Biswas has been a senior advisor to more than 20 governments, six Heads of United Agencies as well as the Secretary Generals of OECD and NATO.

Julian Kirchherris a doctoral researcher at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. Prior to joining the University of Oxford, Kirchherr was as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company advising governments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. He also served as a City Councilor in Werl, Germany, as well as a County Councilor in Soest, Germany.

Asit K Biswas

Distinguished Visiting Professor

Julian Kirchherr

doctoral researcher at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford