Successful public-facing academics

Part 5: Public intellectuals who retain their status within the academic community

We have discussed how research is the main method for academics to increase their status and that public engagement is a way to erode it as well as how one of the fundamental features of this system is the way that academics care about this status in what one study calls the prestige economy. It shows that professors value prestige amongst their specific academic peers, not in other academic communities or in the public eye, and that this is what is validated extrinsically by their institutions.

Yet academics are still engaging the public, becoming more famous both within their field and without, and not experiencing the criticism of their peers for it. These are the Sherry Turkles, not the danah boyds of public intellectualism.

The top quartile of academics — including Turkle and most academic TED speakers — produces a disproportionate amount of public-facing work.

Half of all popular articles were published by 3% of all academic staff, with the top 1% producing 31% of all popular articles. Overall, scientific publishing is considerably less skewed than popular articles, with half of all article equivalents published by 18% of all staff members.

It could have been argued that elite academics are prolific in public publications simply because they are prolific, e.g. they are producing relatively more works in academia and out at equally high levels, but the data shows a different story. While elite academics do produce most scientific publications, there is a small sub-section of high-prestige academics that are already prolific academic writers who produce an inordinate amount of public facing work.

The difference seems to be that, to have success outside academia without hindering one’s academic integrity, a public intellectual must already have a well-established presence within their community. Academics who do TED talks and write for public audiences are those that chose to allocate time on public engagement rather than to research; these academics also tended to be the “successful elite” of academia: older, prolific, well-established tenured professors who were cited more frequently than average. They were already successful in their fields, so they could step outside the academic bubble without losing their credibility.

Next: Translational scholarship — a proposed solution to the public intellectual problem