In science, success is measured mainly through publications in high-level specialist journals. Researchers often have little incentive to disseminate their results outside the academic world. But to fulfill their educational mandate, universities should place more emphasis on science education. This week takes place the annual meeting of the Verein für Socialpolitik. The conference is considered the biggest platform for German-speaking economists in this country. Journalists can search here for studies that are also relevant and of interest to the general public. But what research will generate particular interest?
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Lennart Ziegler researches and teaches in the field of empirical microeconomics at the Institute of Economics at the University of Vienna.
So far, little is known to what extent scientific production is received by the media. While academic response is a key indicator of success for researchers and can be easily quantified using various citation-based rankings, impact on public discourse receives much less attention. Not all successful studies in academia need to generate similar media interest. In a current analysis, therefore, I examined the extent to which the results of current economic studies are mentioned in six major international media. The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, The Economist and CNN websites were reviewed.
The analysis refers to nearly 10,000 studies that first appeared in the past ten years by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a well-known publication series for discussion papers. These discussion papers have not yet been definitively evaluated by scientific journals, but allow an earlier debate in the professional world. They are also known as Working Paper or Preprint (this formulation has become relatively well known thanks to the Drosten podcast).
In order to assess the large amounts of data, an automated search was performed for articles available online that named one or more of the investigators in a study. In addition to regular posts, online content also includes blog posts that specifically address the studies or refer to them in a discussion.
Statistical analysis shows that there is great media interest in new research findings. Of the roughly 20 discussion papers per week, each eleventh study is mentioned in at least one of six media formats in the first month after publication. There are, however, major differences between the media examined. While some formats discuss new releases in regular articles, other media report much more selectively. The Wall Street Journal wrote the most articles, but the CNN news channel’s online presence contains virtually no reference to the research articles it reviewed.
What is popular in science is also cited more often by the media
Compared to economic theory, empirical studies that analyze data on a specific problem and often have direct implications for economics and politics are much more often repeated. Studies related to the United States in particular are of particular interest to the media reviewed, most of which are based in the United States.
Some differences in media popularity can also be identified between different areas of research in economics. The most cited are labor market studies and macroeconomic research. Methodical research, on the other hand, is rare, probably also because the knowledge gain is limited for a large audience.
Analysis of the contributions also shows that the interests of the media and researchers often overlap. Studies with high media popularity are on average also cited more frequently in scientific journals. A similar link can be observed between the media presence of the studies and the scientific success of the respective authors. While the story itself can have a positive influence on academic achievement, the strong correlation suggests that scientific response is a good indicator of media coverage of the content.
When the media reports on new studies, not all of the researchers involved are always mentioned by name in the articles. Economist Justin Wolfers pointed out in an article that female scientists often gain less media attention and are eclipsed by their male co-authors. However, at least for the studies reviewed, there is no evidence that the background of the authors plays a significant role in media presence. Neither academic achievement nor gender have a decisive influence on the selective appointment of individual researchers.
Newspapers and magazines are an important link between academia and the general public. You will find studies relevant to the readership and describe them in such a way that they can be understood even without prior knowledge. In addition, scientific studies are often referred to when it comes to reporting on current policy decisions. The research results are not only interesting for policy makers, but also help the general public to better assess social and political developments. It also helps counter the risk that scientific and social discourse diverge.
In Germany, no platform has a reach comparable to that of the NBER in the USA. However, there are other channels for making the latest research results visible, such as the publication series of major economic research institutes. In addition, the economy has long been a globally networked research community. International research is increasingly received in national media, especially if the research topic is directly related to the country in question. It can therefore be assumed that the results of the analysis could also apply to German-language media at least to a similar extent.