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Public scholars have an obligation to be honest

Social science heads art
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Iowa State University political scientist Steffen Schmidt has been writing about the 2016 election, sharing insights from his focus group research through media commentary and op-eds. There’s one problem: The Associated Press revealed last week that the professor, who refers to himself as Dr. Politics, doesn’t actually hold focus groups — his comments refer to conversations with family, neighbors, and friends.

If you’re reading this post, you probably know that political scientists have been trying to communicate with the broader public about politics, a movement that has been building for several years. There are a lot of venues and approaches, including dedicated scholarly blogs like this one, providing media commentary, participating in data journalism, and writing op-eds. Each of these has value for the discipline and the general public, and each draws on slightly different practices.

Furthermore, we usually place public scholarship in a different category from formal, published research. For the most part, this is as it should be — public scholarship serves a different purpose. But the revelations about Schmidt’s inappropriate use of social science terminology suggest that we may need some more formal guidelines about ethics and honesty in public scholarship.

This post is a preliminary effort to lay out some of the principles involved in doing responsible public scholarship, and to offer a few thoughts about how to do this — and how not to — in our tense and high-stakes political moment. I offer these thoughts in the spirit of starting the conversation, not as the last word. As with questions about research ethics and research in general, I expect that other frequent contributors to public scholarship will agree on the fundamental principles, but there will be some disagreement on their application.

Let’s start with a quick overview of how public scholarship differs from more conventional scholarship — the kind we see published in scholarly journals. It’s not just about jargon and paywalls. The two main ways in which public scholarship differs from traditional scholarship: We are making assessments in real time, and we aim to reach an audience beyond other political scientists and trained scholars. Because we attempt to put events in political science context as they unfold, we sometimes rely on preliminary or unpublished data, or on our best guesses about what’s happening and how it compares with established patterns in the social world. Because we aim for pieces that are short and accessible, we often leave out the nuances of a scholarly debate, or represent its depth with a couple of links. Reaching a broader audience requires this brevity and clarity.

Communicating with a broader audience also means that sometimes we still offer knowledge for its own sake, as in scholarly publishing. But other times, public scholarship can be more argumentative. Scholars can also use their expertise to advocate for policy or action, or offer evaluations of candidates and political developments. Some of us use our platforms to describe personal experiences in the political realm, to honor mentors when they pass away, or, occasionally, to share our personal reactions to political events. Public scholarship in some ways has more constraints, because we are trying to achieve the specific goals of reaching a broader audience in a timely fashion. But the trade-off is that we can also engage in a different way, to make different kinds of arguments and to weigh in on debates that matter.

In other ways, public scholarship is just like more formal, conventional scholarship. Although we may not write about them in as much detail, the sources of inference are still central to any claims we make. If we are applying scholarly knowledge to current events, we have to be clear about how that knowledge was generated. While technical terminology, especially about research methods, tends to be used sparingly in public scholarship, these terms need to be used correctly and with clear explanations. If we refer to focus groups, ethnographic research, experiments, or any other form of research, our best practice is to provide links or brief descriptions of what those terms mean. Methods don’t have to be central, but they cannot be obscured.

Scholars writing for a broader audience are especially obligated to be respectful of the research traditions they draw on. For qualitative social science, which is often unfamiliar to readers, this means acknowledging that this research is done systematically. It takes a lot of training, planning, time, and, importantly, review by ethics boards when human subjects are involved. There are standards about what kinds of things we can learn from qualitative approaches. Without revealing the identities of research subjects, researcher should be specific about the context in which the research took place. Are the findings likely to be applicable to a larger population, or are they specific to a particular place and time?

Qualitative approaches often provide deep and rich knowledge about how people make sense of the social world, but have other limitations and trade-offs when compared with quantitative work. Public scholarship doesn’t always go into these issues, but scholars who write public pieces that draw on this work are obligated to be clear and transparent about these questions, guiding readers to find out more if they want.

This doesn’t mean we only write about inferences based on formal methods of research. Sometimes we go to a political event — or just experience one, like a presidential election — and write about what we observe. But those observations should be presented honestly, and not with terminology that could confuse them with other methods of research.

Clarity, transparency, and rigor are especially important when we’re offering prescriptions or writing about controversial topics. Iowa State officials wrote that scholars have an obligation to be truthful when providing public commentary. I’d argue that best practices go even further than that. At the current juncture in American politics, expertise is a double-edged sword, both embattled and powerful. Academic research has been under political scrutiny for some time, and this seems unlikely to change course. Anything we do to validate the assertion that academics make up evidence for our own convenience or agendas will have repercussions for scholarly communities, far beyond our own individual careers.

And while skepticism about academia pervades some circles, in others, expertise is still valued. That’s where our audience is. When we present ourselves as scholarly experts on a subject, we ask for our audience’s trust. It’s an honor and a unique privilege to receive it, and when we do, we owe our readers the best that academic research has to offer.

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