Category Archives: Impact

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Our Stop-and-Frisk Series: A Case Study for Reimagining Scholarly Communication

As we begin our second week of topic series on stop-and-frisk, I wanted to say a little something more about why we decided to do the series, and how it relates to the overall goal of JustPublics@365, which is to reimagine scholarly communication in the digital era for the public good.

We’re living at a moment in higher education in faculty are increasingly using social media for their personal lives, as well as their work as professional and in the classroom.  A new study just released from the Babson Survey Research Group and Pearson finds that 40 percent of faculty members used social media as a teaching tool in 2013.

FACULTY_SocialMedia(Graphic from Inside Higher Ed)

Faculty members’ use of social media has been steadily increasing since the survey was first conducted in 2010, said Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

Simultaneously, and for a variety of different reasons, a growing number of faculty want to do interdisciplinary work and they want their work to have a broader impact than simply contributing to the scholarly literature in their sub-field of specialization.  However, the reward structure in academia is set against both these possibilities.  Zachary Ernst (Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Missouri-Columbia), in an eloquent post,  “Why I Jumped Off the Ivory Tower,”  describes academia as containing “a perverse incentive structure that maintains the status quo, rewards mediocrity, and discourages potentially high-impact, interdisciplinary work.”  After detailing an interdisciplinary grant proposal gone horribly awry at his institution, Ernst assesses the situation thusly:

In such an environment, our efforts are channeled into narrow sub-specialties, and we consign our work to a tiny audience. Despite the common talk about the importance of “disruptive research” in the university, there’s no real understanding of what makes something “disruptive”. To disrupt anything requires going outside the normal methods for one’s work, redefining what’s important or interesting, and usually drawing on a wide range of data and methodologies. It almost always requires collaboration, and almost always requires going outside one’s own comfort zone. But in an environment where the senior faculty and administrators have been rewarded throughout their careers for toeing their disciplinary lines, there’s a lot of resistance to change. Some of that resistance is due to outright hostility, but most of it is just the result of a lack of experience and imagination.

While Ernst took a clear eyed view of the limitations of academia and chose to “jump off” the Ivory Tower, we prefer to reimagine it.

The aim of JustPublics@365 is to foster just the kind of “disruptive” work that can foster connections between academics, activists and journalists who are working to address some of the pressing social problems of our time.  From where we sit in the heart of New York City, stop-and-frisk is at the top of the list of pressing social problems because of the deleterious effects it has on the democratic life of the city.  Stop-and-frisk has also been an issue around which academics, activists and journalists have worked together, across traditional silos and enabled by digital media, in order to end this practice.

So, we offer this series on stop-and-frisk as a kind of case study of how we might reimagine scholarly communication for the public good.

 

 

Special Interview with Eli Silverman on Recent Stop-And-Frisk Trial

Eli Silverman, JustPublics@365

Professor Eli Silverman

This past week, I interviewed Eli Silverman, PhD (Professor, Emeritus, john Jay and Graduate Center, CUNY), about his experience testifying as an expert witness in the recent stop-and-frisk trial, Floyd, et al. v. New York City. In this interview, I asked Professor Silverman about his involvement as one of the leading scholars working on the issue of stop-and-frisk in New York City and his experience translating academic research to a wider audience. We also discussed the potential changes that will occur as a result of District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin’s ruling and the ramifications of stepping outside the academy and into the courtroom.

 


Can you share a bit about yourself, and your involvement as one of the leading scholars working on the issues of Stop-And-Frisk in New York City?

I have been involved for some many years on research on the NYPD. I wrote a book [NYPD Battles Crime: Innovative Strategies in Policing] that came out in 1999 that was updated in 2001, which dealt with the reforms, the very important reforms that were introduced in the police department in 1994. I went back before then, but focused on that period, from 1994 on, which was a very significant period in terms of management and crime reduction and reforms. It was essentially a positive book. But when I updated it in 2001 with an epilogue, I found I was hearing many stories and discussions about how some of the things I had considered positive were being distorted and turned on its head, and had resulted, had stemmed from management pressure from the headquarters to really just produce numbers, and these numbers were the number of summonses, the number of arrests, the number of Stop-And-Frisks, and all in the name of driving down crime.


How did you get involved with the recent Stop-And-Frisk case in New York City?

I was approached by someone I knew from the PD, who had retired, named Dr. John Eterno. He was a former captain. He is a dean now at Molloy. He had been writing and hearing stories on this as well. He approached me and said, “Let’s do some research.” So we decided to look into this issue, but the police department had become very closed and exhibited a total lack of transparency. So we did a survey of retired captains and above, which had startling results and turned out to, the story appeared on the front page of the Sunday New York Times, which caused quite a stir a few years ago. That was a survey we did. And then we did subsequently a second survey. But the first survey and other research we did resulted in a book called The Crime Numbers Game: Management by Manipulation. We talked about this phenomenon of what they call downgrading crime, moving it from felony. The major crimes that are reported in the U.S. and in New York are what I have called felony crimes, the seven major crimes, that’s how police departments keep score and compare themselves with one another. But the way they were doing it was not taking crime reports. They were moving felony crimes into other categories that’s called misdemeanor crimes, which are not publicly known. There was manipulation. Part of the manipulation ran parallel with this enormous pressure from above to drive down crime and produce activities that they thought drove down crime, and not worry about any of the collateral effects and the impacts of these strategies.


When were you approached to testify for the trial? 

John and I were approached many months before the trial came to pass. We had discussions with them and they thought our research was relevant. The part of our research that they thought was relevant was the research, the two surveys that we did, 2004, 2008. In 2008 we did even a more extensive survey of retired people from all ranks of the police department, and those results were even more dramatic as we refined our survey. We found that the biggest up-tick in these pressures, in a number of areas including Stop-And-Frisk, occurred in 2002 in the Bloomberg-Kelly era. So the plaintiffs, the lawyers for the plaintiffs approached us. They wanted us to report on our research and testify. John could not testify because he was involved in the police department in some of these related activities. So it fell upon me to testify, which was one very stressful experience, but ultimately gratifying because the judge did cite our research, and the judge did cite my testimony, among many other things in her decision, but she did do that.


What changes do you foresee with District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin’s recent ruling on this controversial policing practice?

She wrote two decisions. One is the liability decision, which is goes through the whole thing. If you get a chance to look at, it’s unbelievable. This was a nine-10 week with tons of material and documents. She, when you read it, it’s like some 150-some-odd pages. I think it’s extremely comprehensive and extremely analytical. She goes through all this, and she just peels away the layers of the police department defense. The police department, there was an earlier case called the Daniels case, where the police department agreed to make changes, under what’s called a consent decree, no admittance of anything wrong. But in this case, the Daniels case, which has been in the works for many years, it was clear that these things that police department agreed to do, it wasn’t even a question of whether it was on the back burner or the front burner. It wasn’t on any burner. They were just narrowly focused on crime reduction. So these constitutional legal issues were not addressed. In fact, our second survey asked the question, whether there was a pressure to obey constitutional legal positions. That was the only area where the pressure decreased. In other words, while pressure to increase Stop-And-Frisk, summons, and arrests climbed, the pressure to really do it correctly, or as we said in the questionnaire, to obey constitutional legal rights, that went down. It was quite stark.

In answer to your question, the judge issued the liability, which goes through all this, and in the second decision, which is some 50-some-odd pages, I think, is called the remedy. This speaks to your question, I think. The remedy may be pretty stark. It’s uncertain now because she appointed a federal monitor. Now no police department wants to be overseen by a federal monitor, because they don’t like someone overseeing it. But the federal monitor has to report to the judge in terms of changes that she recommends in training, in changes in supervision, in changed in how forms are filled out. She recommended pilot precincts where the officers would wear cameras so it will record the interaction. So it’s not sully fleshed out what in fact will happen, but the potential is for something quite significant. Plus the fact that this is an open-ended, this introduction of a federal monitor, that she selected a lawyer. It’s open-ended, and it depends on what he works out and what the judge approves, and how long this goes on. So this could be quite a long-standing thing.

To me, it’s a very, very sad legacy of a fine police department that’s gone astray because the leadership has taken it astray. To have this record of crime decline, which we agree with, John and I, although from what we’ve ascertained we would guess it’s about half of what they claim. But nevertheless, to have this fine record, and then it actually being sullied by just the obstinance and the refusal to talk to anybody or any of the critics. The city council, as you may know, introduced the Stop-And-Frisk bill, and inspector general, and both of those were passed over the mayor’s veto. So there can be some very long-term implications. And it’s even more dramatic than that, because the New York so-called police model has been a model for not only other cities throughout the world, but throughout the U.S., but throughout the world. I just came back from Denmark where some of this stuff is percolating. I’ve been in Australia. I’ve been in Paris, which modeled this whole issue of performance measurement and management. If it’s done right it’s great, but it it’s done wrong it can have all these perverse consequences. And this has been spreading all over. And everyone now does know or will know what’s happened to the police department and their once fine reputation. Now it’s going to be a whole different ball game, and this model is not going to be be all for everyone. They’re going to have to look more carefully at how it’s done.


Some academics might be hesitant to get involved with such a controversial issue. So what do you say to critics who might question your objectivity as a scholar now, after your involvement?

You know, there’s an old saying, as a scholar all you can do is speak the truth as you know it to power. I mean, I was a reluctant warrior in this. I didn’t seek this out. In fact, when we first got our first survey results, we were floored. We were floored by the extent of it. And not only that, we had a place where they would write comments. And the comments… The interesting thing is, most of the cops agree with us. We get emails and comments and stuff all the time. But they have to remain anonymous, except for those who are recorded. I don’t know if you are aware, but there have been several who have recorded this stuff from their own station house, Schoolcraft, and Palenko, and others. So it’s not just us saying this. There’s tons of evidence to support it. But it was very stressful. At times I almost said, “Let’s forget it,” because the city did everything they could to keep me out from testifying, including demanding all our research, even the research that was not relevant to the court case.

We balked at that because it’s our research. We worked on it, and nothing to do with the court case. We had to agree that it would be held confidential. We gave some. But it wasn’t, I can assure you, it wasn’t something that I leaped into. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t feel that the plaintiff’s case was very valid and made sense, and really was for the good. Now obviously I’m now high on the party list of the NYPD leadership, which I was when I wrote the first book. But, you know, that’s just the consequences of doing this.

But I try, everyone tries to be objective, or everyone should. We tried to be objective. We tried to call it as we saw it. The city tried to throw out our results. They tried to negate it. They tried to keep me out. And at times I said to the lawyers, I said, “You know, this is too much. I don’t really need all this.” And they said, “No. No.” I said, “It’s just too much.” They said, “They’re doing it.” What they told me is that the other side was doing it in order to discourage me and keep me out.


 

What sort of lessons have you learned do you have from your experience with this case about academics entering a train that’s more frequently trod by activists and journalists?

I think academics have to make a judgment for themselves. Do they want to go forward with what their research uncovers? If they feel their research is valid, and they feel that it’s supportive of a valid cause, then I think every academic has to make a choice for him or herself, whether they feel they want to be supportive. And you know, there is an argument for academic research just not being academic and in the social arena. The interesting thing is, the interesting thing here is, you have to be creative in order to get the data, especially when an organization, and here you have a large organization or a large bureaucracy, is totally nontransparent. The police department has not provided data, not responded, and we spell this out in the book, freedom of information requests.

So the academic, if he or she wants to pursue that, then they have to be creative and say, “How else can I get at this topic, if the institution itself is not providing the, giving me access?” I had access in my first book. In this one we didn’t. But what we did, fortunately, John was a retired member, and had access to the retirees list. And so we did this first through a mail list, and second through a computer program. But you have to be willing. It’s time consuming. But if you believe in something, then you have to make a decision. Do you go forward, or do you just throw in the towel. And if you believe in something then it’s an individual decision, I feel. In the process, you’re going to encounter great obstacles, and there’s no question it’s going to be stressful. Doug Muzzier asked me in an interview, he said, “Who should play you in the movie?” He was being, you know, kidding. I said, “Someone who’s very nervous.”

But that’s the nature of the game. I know this from other academics I know who have testified in cases that by nature it’s very stressful. Even before you testify, in the pretrial examination they try to knock you out, and they try to dismiss what you’ve said. And then they provide. The second day I was there, I was presented with a chart of retirees and how they were. I’d never seen this. But the city lawyer presented it to me. The plaintiff’s lawyer and the city lawyer were going back and forth whether that should be entered into the record. I had never seen this chart. And I said to the judge, I said, “May I object, your honor?” And she said, “Yes, depending on what you have to say.” I said, “Well, this chart is bogus. It doesn’t represent what it pretends to.” And then she queried the person and the city attorney, and she didn’t allow it.

There’s a certain amount of risk. I guess that’s what I’m saying. And one has to make the judgment, is the risk worth taking. In this case, the fact that on my testimony and our research was one piece in the overall decision, was gratifying, and in a way a confirmation of our research.

 


Connecting Scholarship and Activism

Scholarship that’s intended for a small audience of other specialists within the academy and with no connection to the larger social world may continue to have a place, but there are indications that the ivory-tower-only-scholarship no longer holds as much appeal.

Part of that change has to do with digital technologies.

The ‘architecture of participation’ in the digital era has opened up the possibility of being a public intellectual to a much wider range of both traditional academics and non-academics alike.   Being a public intellectual today relies in a fundamental way on the idea of open knowledge production, an idea that encompasses open software, open access journals,  and open data.

While the “public intellectual” is sometimes thought of as simply a provocateur or dismissed as celebrities gifted at self-promotion, the reality is that when there are pressing social issues it becomes necessary for scholars to connect their work to activism that is trying to address those issues.  Being a scholar-activist doesn’t mean eschewing academic rigor, but rather using academic tools in the service of the public good.

A couple of stories of scholar-activists may help illustrate this point.

One of my first assignments as a graduate student Teaching Assistant (TA) at the University of Texas-Austin in the late 1980s, was to work with Les Kurtz on what was colloquially known as “The Nukes Class,” about the sociology of the nuclear arms race.  Les is world renowned scholar of sociological theory, religion and non-violence.  I learned a lot from him about what it means to be a scholar-activist. Les’ class lectures featured sharp sociological analysis on the dangerous build up of nuclear arms and how the rhetoric about an “arms race” contributed that danger.  In an especially entertaining turn, Les invited two representatives from FEMA to offer their by-the-book instructions for what to do in the event of a nuclear bomb attack (note: bring your credit cards, as cash may no longer be accepted after a nuclear holocaust). His book,  The Nuclear Cage: A Sociology of the Arms Race,  offers a reasoned, scholarly analysis of the issue that is also a devastating critique of this particular form of collective madness.

A more recent example involves the scholar-activism happening around the current crisis in Detroit.

The Antipode Foundation, a community of radical geographers, recently awarded a Scholar-Activist Project Award to  Uniting Detroiters: Coming Together from the Ground Up.  The awards are intended to support collaborations between academics, non-academics and activists in ways that promote the public good.

land-justice-workshop(Scholar Activists of the Uniting Detroiters Project)

The Uniting Detroiters  project has brought residents, activists, and scholars together to examine critical problems facing Detroit and develop tools for collective analysis, reflection, and co-research. Over the past year, they have:

  • Filmed 41 interviews, and created a storyboard for a 73 minute “Uniting Detroiters” documentary, to be used as a tool for local community organizations;
  • Collected 21 submissions and 16 oral histories for a “People’s Atlas of Detroit,” which will use counter-mapping, and principals of radical cartography alongside oral histories, hand drawn maps, and photography to highlight the spatial visions of social justice by residents who have not been included on ongoing debates over Detroits’ future; and,
  • Held three workshops on themes of counter-cartography and land justice that were attended by approximately 150 Detroit residents and activists.

Efforts such as Uniting Detroiters  that brings together scholars and activists can be part of work that brings about real change that improves the lives of all people, including those who are often excluded from decision-making in society.

Over the next month here our topic series will explores the pressing social issue of stop-and-frisk, we’ll look at ways that scholar-activist partnerships are making a difference.

What it Means to be an Academic is Changing

What it means to be an academic is changing. Academic researchers are finding it harder to either become or stay ensconced in an ivory tower removed from the rest of society.

Ivory Tower Motor Inn sign(Image source)

In a recent LSE Review of Books podcast, Matthew Flinders, Professor of Politics at Sheffield University, talks about his new book Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2012)and discusses some of these changes.  At about the 8 minute mark in the podcast, Flinders says:

“What does it mean to be a university professor? For me, it doesn’t mean professing to other professors or to students. That’s part of the job, but it’s only one small element. The role of an academic is changing. We’re going through a culture shift – a culture shift that’s driven by external drivers. And these external drivers are basically saying that at a time when public monies are very scarce, and competition for those resources is intense, if you want to take money from the public purse, you need to show that there’s some social benefit for using that money.

Therefore now, academics are under more pressure to show that their research has some form of impact. Some academics see this as a threat – to intellectual freedoms, to thinking. Within political science, there’s a much broader debate that began in American political science, about the way the discipline has evolved it has become disconnected from the world it professes to study.

In my experience, at least 99% of the profession, at least the younger members of the profession, are signed up to this particular challenge, because they feel that you can’t study politics from your office. You can’t study politics from crunching data. Politics is about emotions and passions and fears and pain. Somehow, the study of politics has become de-politicized. I ask anybody to pick up an academic journal and first, wonder if they’d be able to read it, and secondly, wonder if they’d really understood why that mattered to the real world, or got any of that sense that politics is about human relationships.

If academics cannot construct a narrative that says ‘my research has some relevance to the world in which we live,’ if they can’t do that, then I can understand why politicians and ministers and the public say, ‘well why the dickens are we funding you?’ “

Flinders is speaking about his discipline of political science and about the UK, where there is still public funding for research. Flinders’ comments are nearly identical to those of Michael Burawoy’s remarks about sociology in the US, who has said:

“Academics are living a fool’s paradise if they think they can hold on to their ivory tower. The public is no longer prepared to subsidize our academic pursuits. We have to demonstrate our public worth.”

One example of academics who are successfully reaching beyond the academy is the work of the Center for Urban Research (CUR) here at the Graduate Center, which uses statistical data and mapping software to provide better understanding of a host of urban issues.  In partnership with the League of Women Voters, the CUR developed a website for citizens in New York City to quickly and easily find their elected representatives.  The site, Who Represents Me NYC, just launched last month.

In Brooklyn, faculty and students at Pratt are using the tools of Urban Design and Architecture to design ways of rebuilding a sustainable NYC waterfront in the face of the realities of climate change post-Hurricane Sandy.

redhook3(Image from After#Sandy)

In the Bronx, the Public Science Project has been working with residents there to create The Morris Justice Project, using participatory research to resist the damaging policies of the NYPD.

MorrisJustice_DearNYPD(Image created by The Illuminator)

The Morris Justice Project partnered with The Illuminator – a roving van created during the Occupy Wall Street movement – to project their community-collected data onto a local apartment building. The projected image took the form of an open letter to the NYPD. The data called out like a “bat signal” gathering neighbors to discuss what it means to live, work, raise kids, shop, go to school, play, and pray in a community that experienced nearly 4,000 police stops in 2011. Half of these stops involved physical force.

These are just a few, New York City-based examples of academic researchers connecting with people beyond the usual, small circle of fellow experts.  There are many others, of course.  I wrote here just recently about the excellent partnership between the LSE and The Guardian to produce “Reading the Riots,” intended to reach a broad audience with a critical analysis of the riots that swept London.

What all these examples point to are the ways in which being an academic is changing. Partly this change is due to the rise in digital technologies that make publishing a much easier proposition than in the pre-digital era.  This change is also partly due to the rise of alternative academic careers, such as data analysts, mapping experts, and data visualization experts, that are opening up at the same time as the adjunctification of academia means fewer, traditional tenure track jobs are available. Of course, the rise of these alternative careers is in no way keeping pace with the decline in tenure track openings, but their emergence, alongside the rise in digital technologies, does point to new ways of thinking about being an academic and a public intellectual.

There’s something else at play that’s changing what it means to be an academic.  We live in a moment in in the US which income inequality is approaching historic new levels that, as President Obama recently observed, “is fraying the social fabric of our society.” A recent study finds that 80%, or 4 out of 5, US adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives. Academics, both those lucky few in tenure-bearing jobs and those looking to find them, are part of this social reality as well.  Within such a context in which so many people, including many struggling academics, are hurting it seems improvident, maybe even unethical, to be checked into the Ivory Tower motel using the free Internet, HBO and talking to ourselves.

“Reading the Riots” : Academic-Journalism Partnership

Partnerships between academic social science researchers and journalists hold great promise for addressing inequality.  At a meeting earlier this month at the London School of Economics (LSE), Professor Tim Newburn of the LSE discussed the Reading the Riots project. This project was run jointly with The Guardian with the aim to produce evidence-based research that would help explain why the rioting spread across England in the summer of 2011. The slides are below and the full podcast of the event is available.  It’s definitely worth a listen to hear Newburn describe the opportunities and challenges of this unique academic-journalism partnership.

As Newburn describes, one of the key opportunities the partnership with The Guardian provided traditional academic researchers is reach.  The readership of The Guardian far exceeds that of any academic publication by several orders of magnitude and that’s really a game-changer for social science research.  At the most basic level, it means that academics need to think about who they want to speak to (and with) when moving beyond the narrow scope of other specialists.

Among the challenges that Newburn enumerates are the radically different pace of work for academics and journalists.  Journalists are trained to write quickly to meet deadlines.  Academics, well, we like the sound of deadlines as they “whoosh” passed and are accustomed to a much, much slower pace of producing writing (aside: I think this is part of why blogging proves so challenging for many academics).

Newburn also points to some of the interesting methodological issues that arose during this collaboration. He observes that academics and journalists are often engaged in the same practices (e.g., interviewing people, analyzing data), but that academics are often mired in contemplating “how” we engage in these research practices. (Following Newburn’s remarks, the podcast of the event continues with an interesting discussion about “impacts,” something that we’re very interested in here at JustPublics@365.)

In our own academic-journalism partnership between The Graduate Center and the CUNY J-School, I’ve been delighted and amazed at the success of this collaboration around creating the MediaCamp workshops. These workshops offer skill–building in media and digital media  combine research and digital media for the public good. We haven’t yet attempted collaborating around a specific research topic, such as the Reading the Riots project, but perhaps that will be next.

What Newburn’s Reading the Riots project and our own MediaCamp workshops mean to me is that there is a new kind of space opening that combines the best of both research and journalism.  In this hybrid space, academics and journalists will increasingly collaborate, borrow and remix methods from both fields, and at least potentially, reach wider audiences beyond the narrow range of specialists. Perhaps most exciting to me, is the idea that academic-journalism collaborations could be an innovative way to address issues of social inequality.

Digital Media Storytelling Can Influence Policy

Policymakers are influenced by compelling stories and academic researchers who want to influence policy should consider the power of digital media storytelling to influence policy, as this experience in East Harlem reveals.

East Harlem is among the first of New York City’s “Aging Improvement Districts.”  In a global society that’s rapidly aging, Aging Improvement Districts are intended to address the concerns about mobility and accessibility for older adults living in large cities. The Age-Friendly New York City Project, which is behind the Aging Improvement Districts, conducted a public health community-assessment survey to find out about the needs of aging New Yorkers living in East Harlem. The researchers were eager to influence policy makers with some of their findings about the needs of seniors in this community, and they wanted to reach back to those in East Harlem had participated in the survey.  They soon realized that an ordinary research paper or presentation wouldn’t accomplish either of these goals.

Instead, the researchers decided that telling the stories, in digital video format, was the best way to reach both policy makers and members of the community. This video (15:53) illustrates the research findings of NYAM’s community-assessment survey through the stories of several seniors living in East Harlem:

The video features the stories of several seniors living in East Harlem and was screened at a large event (August, 2011) hosted by NYAM, and attended by policy makers, service providers and members of the community, many of whom cheered when they recognized friends and neighbors on screen.

One of the issues raised by elders in the video was the reluctance to use public pools and a desire for seniors-only hours for swimming.  While the video was being screened, one policy maker representing the NYC Parks Department placed a phone call and implemented a “seniors-only swim” on the spot – and then announced it later in the meeting.  Today, Senior Swim in NYC is a city-wide program that opens up access to an important recreational resource to older adults.

While it’s possible this change would have happened following a standard research report and slide presentation, but it seems unlikely. What got the policy maker to pick up the phone was seeing and hearing a compelling story, told by people affected by the policy.

Of course, not all policy issues are as easily addressed. Another issue facing seniors raised in the video is the struggle to do laundry. The video features the story of two seniors taking their clothes from a laundromat and then hauling it up four-flights of stairs to their apartment, a struggle for the even the youngest and fittest among us, and a herculean task for two grandparents.  Added to this is the fact that many elders in East Harlem live in public housing, and the local housing authority, NYCHA, recently announced a plan to close all laundry facilities in public housing buildings.  A deputy commissioner from NYCHA attended the video screening and, moved by the stories of the seniors and their laundry struggle, promised to keep laundry facilities open.  Still, the battle to keep laundry facilities open – and operating – at NYCHA buildings is one that continues.

The point is, policymakers are influenced by compelling stories.  Research still plays a role here because it informed the development of the stories in the video.  Research can also provide information about the scope and scale of a policy issue.  The community screening of the video added an accountability and exerted additional pressure on those with some power to make changes. After the screening, the video was posted to the web and circulated among those in the community, to journalists, and a much wider audience than attended the event.

The strategic use of digital media storytelling – both to engage community members and influence policy makers – is a new and innovative development.

Digital media storytelling can influence policy and researchers should consider it as an important tool if their goal is to shape policy.

Impact Factor Shifting from Journal to Article

The traditional measure of scholarly impact, “impact factor” of journals is shifting to individual articles, separate from their journals they are published in.  This has big implications for how we think about the impact of academic research both within the academy and beyond it.

Prestigious, R1 institutions, often evaluate faculty for tenure and promotion based on how often they publish in “high impact” journals, as measured by something known as Impact Factor (IF).  The IF was developed as part of the U.S. National Research Council project 35 years ago to evaluate the improvements that resulted from a billion dollar University Science Development program funded by the National Science Foundation. To find out what a particular journal’s IF is, you can consult this guide. It’s currently administered by Thomas Reuters, and journals often tout their impact factor (citing Thomas Reuters) to attract submissions from academics eager to share that putative prestige.

Journal Impact Factor advert(Image source)

The Impact Factor have come under scrutiny for a number of reasons, including that the IF rankings of journals have a remarkably high correlation to departments’ ranking, suggesting that the it’s not the journals that are prestigious but the academic departments that house them.

Journals can also boost their IF through various easy-to-manipulate means and dozens of journals have come under attack for such practices. A number of academics have launched a critique of impact factors (pdf) and make a persuasive case about their lack of validity.

There’s another problem with impact factors.  A recent analysis by George Lazano, Vincent Larivière and Yves Gingras identifies another, and perhaps larger, problem: since about 1990, the IF has been losing its very meaning.

Lozano points out that impact factors were developed in the early 20th century to help American university libraries with their journal purchasing decisions.  Of course, throughout the last century, printed, bound journals were the main way in which scholarly research was distributed. All that’s changing.

With digital means of publication and dissemination, academic research is released from those bound volumes to a many-to-many distribution system. Here is what Lozano and colleagues found in their research on the impact factor in this new environment:

Using a huge dataset of over 29 million papers and 800 million citations, we showed that from 1902 to 1990 the relationship between IF and paper citations had been getting stronger, but as predicted, since 1991 the opposite is true: the variance of papers’ citation rates around their respective journals’ IF has been steadily increasing. Currently, the strength of the relationship between IF and paper citation rate is down to the levels last seen around 1970.

Furthermore, we found that until 1990, of all papers, the proportion of top (i.e., most cited) papers published in the top (i.e., highest IF) journals had been increasing. So, the top journals were becoming the exclusive depositories of the most cited research. However, since 1991 the pattern has been the exact opposite. Among top papers, the proportion NOT published in top journals was decreasing, but now it is increasing. Hence, the best (i.e., most cited) work now comes from increasingly diverse sources, irrespective of the journals’ IFs.

If the pattern continues, the usefulness of the IF will continue to decline, which will have profound implications for science and science publishing. For instance, in their effort to attract high-quality papers, journals might have to shift their attention away from their IFs and instead focus on other issues, such as increasing online availability, decreasing publication costs while improving post-acceptance production assistance, and ensuring a fast, fair and professional review process.

Lozano and colleagues raise interesting issues for us to consider in the new landscape of scholarly communication.  If the impact of our research is no longer tied to particular journals, often with very insular, disciplinary-specific concerns, and geared to a narrow audience of specialists, then there are a number of possibilities that open up.  As Lozano suggests, we may begin to see journals that increase online availability, lower publication costs, and improve production and peer-review processes.

Whatever happens, the shift of “impact” from a small set of journals to individual articles is an epic shift in scholarly communication.