Tag Archives: social media

Review essay: Public engagement and the influence imperative

publicsoccovers

I have written a review essay at the invitation of Contemporary Sociology. Here’s a preprint version on SocArXiv: https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/v27xk/.

This is the abstract. Feedback welcome!

Public engagement and the influence imperative

Abstract: A review essay discussing three advice books for social scientists. Sociologists, in responding to the imperative to make their work more influential, must go beyond doing “public sociology” to embrace doing sociology “in public” (Healy 2017). Rather than using public engagement primarily for publicity – to make our research matter – we should use engagement to help us do research that matters in the first place. Next, I caution that the drive to be professionally rewarded for public intellectualism is fraught with conflicts that may be irreconcilable. To be a public intellectual today requires being both public in one’s intellectual life and intellectual in one’s public life, and for academics in the era of the “market university” (Berman 2011), trying to get paid for that leads to a neoliberal trap. Finally, I argue for a move beyond personal strategies toward the development of the open scholarship as an institutional response that ultimately may be responsible for sociology’s survival.

Here is the SocArXiv citation:

Cohen, Philip N., 2018. “Public Engagement and the Influence Imperative”. SocArXiv. April 7. doi:10.17605/OSF.IO/V27XK.

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How I engaged my way to excellent research success and you can too

kid on string phone in front of computer screen

Kid photo CC from MB Photography; collage by pnc.

Too often sociologists think of social media, or online communications generally, primarily as a way of broadcasting their ideas and building their audience, instead of as a way of deepening their engagement with different people and perspectives. You see this when academics start a twitter account right when their book is coming out. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s very limited. A crucial part of being a public scholar, public intellectual, or a public sociologist, etc., is reading, listening, and learning through engagement, and digital communication can enhance the metabolism of that process. Especially important is the chance to learn from people you don’t normally interact with. For all the complaints about social media bubbles, some true, social media also offers huge efficiencies for meeting and learning from new people.

As I’m writing an essay about this, I thought of my work on divorce as an example. So here’s that thread, condensed.

A divorce story

In 2008 I was teaching an undergraduate Family Sociology course at the University of North Carolina, and included a section on divorce based on other people’s research. I was also developing a proposal for my own textbook, which at the time framed family structures and events, including divorce, as consequences and causes of inequality. I was reading research about divorce along with many other family issues that were outside of my formal training and experience (the closest I had come to a family demography or family sociology course was a seminar on Gender, Work & Family in grad school).

Then in 2009, I wrote a post on my pretty new blog criticizing something bad the Brad Wilcox had written about divorce. I was trying to be newsy and current, and he was claiming that the recession was lowering divorce rates because hard times pulled people together. We didn’t yet know what would happen in the recession. (In the comments, Louise Roth suggested it would take time for divorces “caused” by the recession to show up, which turned out to be true.)

I kept on that path for a while, criticizing Wilcox again for similar work in 2011. By then — prompted by the combination of my reading, the blog debates, and the news coverage around families and the recession — I was working on a paper on divorce using the American Community Survey. I presented it at a demography meeting in the summer of 2011, then revised and presented it at the Population Association of America the following spring. I blogged about this a couple more times as I worked on it, using data on state variation, and Google searches, each time getting feedback from readers.

A version of the paper was rejected by Demography in the summer of 2011 (which generated useful reviews). Although now discredited as not peer-review-publishable (which no one knew), my commentary on divorce and the recession was nevertheless featured in an NPR story by Shankar Vedantam. Further inspired, I sent a new version of the paper (with new data) to Demographic Research, which also rejected it. I presented on the work a couple of times in 2012, getting feedback each time. By August 2012, with the paper still not “published,” I was quoted describing my “divorce/recession lull-rebound hypothesis” in New York magazine.

The news media pieces were not simply my work appearing in the news, in a one-directional manner, or me commenting on other people’s research, but rather me bringing data and informed commentary to stories the reporters were already working on. Their work influenced my work. And all along that news coverage was generating on- and offline conversations, as I found and shared work by other people working on these topics (like the National Center for Marriage and Family Research, and the Pew Research Center). Looking back over my tweets about divorce, I see that I covered divorce and religion, disabilities, economics, and race/ethnic inequality, and also critiqued media coverage. (Everything also got discussed on Facebook, in a smaller semi-private circle.)

By 2014 I finally got the paper — now with even newer data — published in a paywalled peer-reviewed journal, in Population Research and Policy Review. This involved writing the dreaded phrase, “Thank you very much for the opportunity to revise this paper again.” (Submitted October 2012, revision submitted August 2013, second revision submitted January 2014, final revision April 2014.) The paper, eventually titled, “Recession and Divorce in the United States, 2008-2011,” did improve over this time as new data provided better leverage on the question, and the reviewers actually made some good suggestions.

Also in 2014 the descriptive analysis was published in my textbook. The results were reported here and there, and expanded into the general area of family-recession studies, including this piece in the Conversation. I also developed a method of projecting lifetime divorce odds (basically 50%), for which I shared the data and code, which was reported on here. Along the way I also did some work on job characteristics and divorce (data and code, working paper). When I posted technical notes, I got interesting responses from people like economist Marina Adshade, whom I’ve never met.

So that’s an engagement story that includes teaching, the blogosphere and social media, news media, peer-reviewed publishing, conference presentations and colloquium talks. I did research, but also argued about politics and inequality, and taught and learned demography. It’s not a story of how I used social media, or the news media, to get the word out about my research, although that happened, too. The work product, not just the “publications,” were all public to varying degrees, and the discussions included all manner of students, sociologists, reporters, and interested blog or Twitter readers, most of whom I didn’t know or wouldn’t have met any other way.

So I can’t draw a line dividing the “engagement” and the “research,” because they weren’t separate processes.

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Trump Twitter suit argued in federal court

pnc-holding-blocked-phone

My showing how I’m blocked by Trump on Twitter. Photo by Miesha Miller.

With updates.

Yesterday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, lawyers from the Knight First Amendment Institute and the Department of Justice argued the lawsuit against President Trump and his staff for blocking us on Twitter, in which I’m a plaintiff.

After the two-hour hearing, just like in Law and Order, the news media met us with cameras and microphones as we came down the stairs of the courthouse, and I realized I hadn’t prepared what I would say. The first questions focused on a suggestion by the judge that Trump should just mute his critics on Trump instead of blocking us. Was this the solution? I hadn’t had time to consider it carefully, and we haven’t received any kind of settlement offer. So I said this:

Honestly I don’t know if muting is really the solution. But if all they really care about, which they say, is that he just doesn’t want to hear from us, then he would mute, but obviously he wants to suppress our speech. Obviously he doesn’t want us to be participating in the forum. He wants to look out at the world on Twitter, and see that everybody agrees with him and everybody thinks he’s great – and the fact is that’s not true – and that’s why he blocks us. He literally blocks us so that we won’t be seen to be expressing our views against him, and I think that’s outrageous and I’m glad that it’s apparently illegal.

Here are a few media links.

Columbia Journalism Review: In downtown New York, a First Amendment fight over Trump’s tweets

“I never thought he would block me. I tweeted at him all the time,” Cohen told CJR outside court. He’d just watched attorneys from the Knight First Amendment Institute tell a federal judge that in blocking Cohen because he didn’t like his tweet, the president had engaged in unconstitutional discrimination based on viewpoint. The Knight Institute, which is based at Columbia University, is representing Cohen and six other plaintiffs—a surgeon, a comic, a musician-activist, two writers, and a police officer—in a bid to qualify Trump’s Twitter as a public forum; part of a broader push to protect the First Amendment from a president who clearly does not respect it.

New York TimesJudge Floats Idea to Settle @realDonaldTrump Twitter Blocking Case

A federal judge in Manhattan had plenty of questions for lawyers representing a group of Twitter users who sued President Trump in July after he blocked them on the social media service. And she had even more for the government.

The seven users, who had been blocked by the @realDonaldTrump account after criticizing the president, were joined in the lawsuit by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. Their lawyers claimed that Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed is an official government account and that blocking users from following it was a violation of their First Amendment rights.

Lawyers from the Department of Justice insisted that the Twitter feed was not, in fact, a public forum. Furthermore, they argued, no one had been meaningfully excluded from it.

Courthouse News, with the courthouse steps statements:

New York City Fox 5 news, with some followup interviews:

Agence France Press, published by Daily MailTwitter-blocked by Trump? Judge hears ‘free-speech’ case

Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, said he was summarily blocked in June 2017 after he reacted to a Trump tweet by replying with a photo of the president superimposed with the words “Corrupt Incompetent Authoritarian”.

“At first I was kind of proud, like ‘oh he cares about me,'” Cohen said.

“But then very quickly I realized that a lot fewer people were seeing my tweets and my political efficacy, my ability to speak to my fellow citizens, was impaired by that. And I think that’s not the way our government should act.”

New York: The Newest Frontier in Jurisprudence is Trump’s Twitter Feed

What’s private catharsis for the rest of us can be rightly seen as government retaliation when it’s a public official who goes on a blocking spree.

And a photo by Scott Matthews:

pnc courthouse steps 3-8-18

Photo by Scott Matthews.

These are just a few clips, mostly my scrap-booking for the day. I’ll write more later. Read all the case documents and statements, including those of the other plaintiffs, from the amazing Knight First Amendment Institute here.

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Breaking: Trump has terrible judgment

Say what you want about his decrepit values, noxious personality, and authoritarian political views, but we should all be able to agree Trump has terrible judgment. Also that he doesn’t care about little people. And a lot of people who like him are deplorable.

This time, the story behind the story.

On Monday night Trump pulled himself away from MLK reverie long enough to notice that CNN was doing a show about his daughter, Ivanka. He saw someone praising her on Twitter and copied his message. He wrote:

djtgoodspine

The Daily News captured the original tweet, by Lawrence Goodstein (drgoodspine) revealing that Trump had lowercased “Great” and added a comma after it, but failed to notice that the good Dr. Goodstein got Ivanka’s Twitter handle wrong.

drgoodspine

Hilarity ensued, and the story focused on how the real @Ivanka responded by telling him to pay attention to climate change.

I haven’t seen any media focus on Goodstein, apparently because he deleted his account right away. But I happened to notice it in time, and screen-grabbed a few tweets. The point of my showing them is: Trump has no idea what he’s doing or how it affects real (little) people, and doesn’t care anyway. Secondarily, the guy is awful and any reasonable public figure would want nothing to do with him – at least as he represented himself on Twitter – and certainly wouldn’t give him a platform of millions on Twitter. (I didn’t notice how many followers Goodstein had, but I remember thinking it wasn’t many.)

I didn’t save all of his tweets, but I got a few that I considered representative, because it was immediately apparent that a lot of what he did on Twitter was call people assholes, including President Obama, “Norm” Chomsky, and a lot of journalists, often by juxtaposing their face with a picture of an asshole. Take a look (click to view individual images):

 

Who cares? I don’t care about Goodstein. He claims to have spent a year treating 9/11 victims in New York, and for all I know he’s a good chiropractor. So he loves Trump – not surprising given what an unpleasant person he seems to be. The point is about Trump’s bad behavior. Some Trump fans live for a retweet from the great Tiny Hands. Maybe Goodstein did, too. But he apparently wasn’t really prepared for that big of a spotlight to shine on his nasty asshole-screaming habit (or maybe he was fine with it and it was a Trump goon squad that made him shut it down to prevent embarrassment – to Trump.)

And who shouts to millions of people without the slightest consideration of the context and content of what they’re shouting? Trump has had worse tweets, and done many much worse things, but his platform is actually still growing, and the power he has is increasing. He should not treat individuals like this. Before he turns someone’s life inside out, someone should check it out. Can the person handle it? Do they want to? Obama has had some wonderful moments with random citizens, but I don’t think they started with him landing Marine 1 on their lawn with the press pool and no advance people.

Finally, there are potential security implications, obviously, when a president acts so impulsively. One thing to notice is that Goodstein’s handle, @drgoodspine, was snapped up by someone, and they now have a potentially damaging platform as well, as Trump’s tweet is still out there.

Anyway, I just wrote this to help keep the record of bad judgment complete, seeing that no one was reporting it.

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No paper, no news (#NoPaperNoNews)

nopapernonews

In the abstract, the missions of science and science reporting align. But in the market arena they both have incentives to cheat, stretch, and rush. Members of the two groups sometimes have joint interests in pumping up research findings. Reporters feel pressure to get scoops on cutting edge research, research that they want to appear important as well as true — so they may want to avoid a pack of whining, jealous tweed-wearers seen as more hindrance than help. And researchers (and their press offices) want to get splashy, positive coverage of their discoveries that isn’t bogged down by the objections of all those whining, jealous tweed-wearers either.

Despite some bad incentives, the alliance between good researchers and good reporters may be growing stronger these days, with the potential to help stem the daily tide of ridiculous stories. Partly due to social media interaction, it’s become easier for researchers to ping reporters directly about their research, or about a problem with a story; and it’s become easier for reporters to find and contact researchers to cover their work, and for comment or analysis of research they’re covering. The result is an increase in research reporting that is skeptical and exploratory rather than just exuberant or exaggerated. Some of this rapid interaction between experts researchers and expert reporters, in fact, operates as a layer of improved peer review, subjecting potentially important research to more extreme vetting at just the right moment.

Those of us in these relationships who want to do the right thing really do need each other. And one way to help is to encourage the development of prosocial norms and best practices. To that end, I think we should agree on a No Paper No News pact. Let’s pledge:

  • If you are a researcher, or university press office, and you want your research covered, free up the paper — and insist that news coverage link to it. Make the journal open a copy, or post a preprint somewhere like SocArXiv.
  • If you are a reporter or editor, and you want to cover new research, insist that the researcher, university, or journal, provide open access to its content — then link to it.
  • If you are a consumer of science or research reporting, and you want to evaluate news coverage, look for a clear link to an open access copy of the paper. If you don’t see one, flag it with the #NoPaperNoNews tag, and pressure the news/research collaborators to comply with this basic best practice.

This is not an extremist approach. I’m not saying we must require complete open access to all research (something I would like to see, of course). And this is not dissing the peer review process, which, although seriously flawed in its application, is basically a good idea. But peer review is nothing like a guarantee that research is good, and it’s even less a guarantee that research as translated through a news release and then a reporter and an editor is reliable and responsible. #NoPaperNoNews recognizes that when research enters the public arena through the news media, it may become important in unanticipated ways, and it may be subject to more irresponsible uses, misunderstandings, and exploitation. Providing direct access to the research product itself makes it possible for concerned people to get involved and speak up if something is going wrong. It also enhances the positive impact of the research reporting, which is great when the research is good.

Plenty of reporters, editors, researchers, and universities practice some version of this, but it’s inconsistent. For example, the American Sociological Association currently has a news release up about a paper in the American Sociological Review, by Paula England,  Jonathan Bearak, Michelle Budig, and Melissa Hodges. And, as is now usually the case, that paper was selected by the ASR editors to be the freebie of the month, so it’s freely available. But the news release (which also only lists England as an author) doesn’t link to the paper. Some news reports link to the free copy but some don’t. ASA could easily add boilerplate language to their news releases, firmly suggesting that coverage link to the original paper, which is freely available.

Some publishers support this kind of approach, laying out free copies of breaking news research. But some don’t. In those cases, reporters and researchers can work together to make preprint versions available. In the social sciences, you can easily and immediately put a preprint on SocArXiv and add the link to the news report (to see which version you are free to post — pre-review, post-review, pre-edit, post-edit, etc. — consult your author agreement or look up the journal in the Sherpa/Romeo database.)

This practice is easy to enforce because it’s simple and technologically easy. When a New York Times reporter says, “I’d love to cover this research. Just tell me where I can link to the paper,” most researchers, universities, and publishers will jump to accommodate them. The only people who will want to block it are bad actors: people who don’t want their research scrutinized, reporters who don’t want to be double-checked, publishers who prioritize income over the public good.

#NoPaperNoNews

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Racist pile on, Storified

I made a Storify story out of a Twitter conversation I had with a bunch of racist Trump supporters yesterday. Here it is: Racist pile on. I can’t embed it here, probably just as well because a lot of readers probably don’t want to read Nazi propaganda, racial slurs, and gas chamber references.

This was the only thing they gave me that I actually laughed at.

racist-charlie-brown

It sums up the power theory of racism nicely. But you have to stop to think about it. That’s not really how it happens, two innocent kids saying the same thing. In real life it’s more like Black Lives Matter saying “We like to be Black, and I don’t want our people to be killed for it,” and a mob of DavidDuke/Trump supporters burning a cross and yelling back at them, “White power!”

But anyway, interested to hear what you think if you go read the Storify thing.

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Basic self promotion

your work

If you don’t care enough to promote your research, how can you expect others to?

These are some basic thoughts for academics promoting their research. You don’t have to be a full-time self-promoter to improve your reach and impact, but the options are daunting and I often hear people say they don’t have time to do things like run a Twitter account or write blogs. Even a relatively small effort, if well directed, can help a lot. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s fine to do some things pretty well even if you can’t do everything to your ideal standard.

It’s all about making your research better — better quality, better impact. You want more people to read and appreciate your work, not just because you want fame and fortune, but because that’s what the work is for. I welcome your comments and suggestions below. 

Present yourself

Make a decent personal website and keep it up to date with information about your research, including links to accessible copies of your publications (see below). It doesn’t have to be fancy (I have a vested interest in keeping standards low in that department). I’m often surprised at how man  people are sitting behind years-old websites. 

Very often people who come across your research somewhere else will want to know more about you before they share, report on, or even cite it. Your website gives your work more credibility. Has this person published other work in this area? Taught related courses? Gotten grants? These are things people look for. It’s not vain or obnoxious to present this information, it’s your job. I recommend a good quality photo (others disagree).

Make your work available

Let people read the actual research. Publishing in open-access journals is ideal, because it’s the right thing to do and more people can read it. (My recent article in Sociological Science was downloaded several hundred times within 10 days, which is much more than I would expect from a paywalled journal.)

Whether or not you do that, share your working paper or preprint versions. This is best done in your university repository (ask your library) or public disciplinary archive. (For prominent examples, check out the University of California’s has eScholarship or Harvard’s DASH; I use the working paper site of the Maryland Population Research Center, which is run by UCLA.) If you put them on your own university website, that will allow them to show up in web searches (including Google Scholar), but they won’t be properly tagged and indexed for things like citation or grant analysis, or archived — so it’s better just to put links on your website. But don’t just link to the pay-walled version, that’s the click of death for someone just browsing around. 

Don’t be intimidated by copyright. You can almost always put up a preprint without violating any agreement (ideally you wouldn’t publish anywhere that makes you take it down afterwards), and even if you have to take it down eventually you get months or years to share it first. No one will sue you or fire you — the worst outcome is being asked to take it down, which is very rare. Don’t prioritize protecting the journal’s proprietary right to promotion over serving the public (and your career) by getting the research out there, as soon as it’s ready. To see the policies of different journals regarding self-archiving, check out the simple database at SHERPA/RoMEO.

I oppose private sites like Academia.edu and ResearchGate. These are just private companies doing what your university and its library are already doing for the public. Your paper will not be discovered more if it is on one of these sites. It will show up in a Google search if you put it on your website or, better, in a public repository.

I’m not an open access purist, at least for sociology. If you got public money to develop a cure for cancer, that’s different. For us, not everything has to be open access (books, for example), but the more it is the better, especially original research. Anyway, it would be great if sociology got more into open science (for example, with the Open Science Framework). People for whom code is big already use sites like GitHub for sharing, which is beyond me; in your neck of the woods that can be great for getting your work out, too.

Share your work

In the old days we used to order paper reprints of papers we published and literally mail them to the famous and important people we hoped would read and cite them. Nowadays you can email them a PDF. Sending a short note that says, “I thought you might be interested in this paper I wrote” is normal, reasonable, and may be considered flattering. (As long as you don’t follow up with repeated emails asking if they’ve read it yet.)

Social media

I recommend at least basic social media, Twitter and Facebook. This does not require a massive time commitment — you can always ignore them. Setting up a public profile on Twitter or a page on Facebook gives people who do use them all the time a way to link to you and share your profile. If someone wants to show their friends one of my papers on Twitter, this doesn’t require any effort on my part. They tweet, “Look at this awesome new paper @familyunequal wrote!” When people click on the link they go to my profile, which tells them who I am and links to my website. I do not have to spend time on Twitter for this to work. (I chose @familyunequal because familyinequality was too long and I didn’t want to use my name because I was determined not to use Twitter for personal stuff. I think something closest to your name is ideal, but don’t not do this because you can’t think of the perfect handle.)

Of course, an active social media presence does help draw people into your work. But even low-level attention will help: posting or tweeting links to new papers, conference presentations, other writing, etc. No need to get into snarky chitchat and following hundreds of people if you don’t want to.

To see how others are using Twitter, you can visit the list I maintain, which has more than 600 sociologists. This is useful for comparing profile and feed styles.

Other writing

People who write popular books go on book tours to promote them. People who write minor articles in sociology might send out some tweets, or share them with their friends on Facebook. In between are lots of other places you can write something to help people find and learn about your work. I recommend blogging, but that can be done different ways.

As with publications themselves, there are public and private options, and I’m not a purist. (Some of my blog posts at the Atlantic, for which I used to get paid a little, were literally sponsored by Exxon, which I didn’t notice at first because I only looked at the site with my ad-blocker on.) But again public usually works better in addition to feeling better.

There are some good organizations now that help people get their work out. In my area, for example, the Council on Contemporary Families is great (I’m on their board), producing research briefs related to new publications, and helping to bring them to the attention of journalists and editors. Others work with the Scholars Strategy Network, which helps people place Op-Eds, or others. The great non-profit site The Society Pages includes lots of avenues for writing about your research. In addition, there are blogs run by sections of the American Sociological Association (like Work in Progress, from the Organizations, Occupations, and Work section) or other professional associations, and various group blogs.

And there is Contexts (of which I’m co-editor), the general interest magazine of ASA, where we would love to hear proposals for how you can bring your research out into the open (for the magazine or our blog).

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