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Emphasis on coverage may be 'subtle skewing' research

Mainstream media increasingly spotlights research papers—a trend that brings both benefits and dangers to the scientific community, Noam Scheiber reports for the New York Times

Spurred by the Michael LaCour scandal, social scientists have recently discussed the manner in which their fields—which used to spurn—now reward public attention. Media visibility's importance is growing, says David Card, a University of California at Berkeley labor economist.

Since the Great Recession, public interest in the sciences has grown and scholars reacted by seeking even more coverage.

"Many young economists realize that they win a MacArthur or the Clark prize, or both, by being featured in the [New York] Times," says James Heckman, a University of Chicago economist and winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science.

While most tenure and hiring committees in the social sciences still give more weight to articles in top technical journals, they also "assess the impact and visibility of a person's work," says Heckman.

Additionally, many researchers are funded by nonprofit foundations whose leaders are more excited when findings are covered by the media.

This combination subtly skews research, according to Scheiber. "Several" economists in elite departments told him that their colleagues tailor and pitch academic papers to journalists.

"If it appears in the papers before it's peer-reviewed, that can be a problem," says Gary King, a political scientist at Harvard University.

Most journalists do not know how to determine whether science is good or shoddy, says Sheiber.

Additionally, general interest journals have less strenuous review processes compared with their technical peer publications.

For example, Science—in which LaCour's paper was published—typically spends less than two months vetting an article. In comparison, top economic and political science journals take between six months and a year (Scheiber, New York Times, 6/5). 

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