Why I believe that political research is too important to languish in journals

October 28, 2005

The other day, a balding thirtysomething academic sat on a bench in central London reading a fictitious newspaper. Despite the cold, he read the same pages - which contained nothing but gibberish - over and over again. He then folded the paper and stood up. Then he sat down and opened the paper again. Then he folded it again. Got up. Sat down. And again and again and again.

Welcome to the joys of TV. That balding academic was me, and the fictitious paper - the Daily Cynic - was supposed to present the conventional view of MPs ("Why oh why can't our MPs be more independent-minded, like they used to be..."). After folding the paper, I was meant to get up and walk towards the camera explaining to the lucky viewers of BBC1's The Politics Show why my research proves that this view is about as misguided and muddleheaded as you can get. The eventual piece of footage lasted five minutes. It took the best part of three days - three days! - to make. Partly this is the nature of the TV beast. But it was also a result of my inability to do three fairly basic functions - fold a newspaper, stand up and start talking - in sequence, without getting one of them seriously wrong. It was once said of former US President Gerald Ford that he was so dumb he couldn't fart and chew gum at the same time. At times, I can make him look like a model of co-ordination.

Yet here's the thing. While I was freezing my chuff off, I was also overdue with the revisions on an article for a fairly prestigious academic journal.

With the research assessment exercise looming, conventional academic wisdom left little doubt which activity I should have been devoting my time to... and it wasn't flouncing about in front of TV cameras.

In which case, it is about time we challenged conventional academic wisdom. We all know the embarrassingly low figures for the readership of journal articles. Similarly, while I don't know the exact number of people who bought my previous book - the topic is too painful to raise with the publishers - I do know that the last royalty cheque wouldn't cover a decent meal out. By contrast, The Politics Show reaches about 1 million people each Sunday. That's 1 million people who are interested enough in the subject to choose to watch a programme about politics. There shouldn't be any serious debate about which is the more valuable activity.

This isn't about selling books. It's about selling findings and arguments. Yes, I know that not all research topics have a potential popular appeal. Yes, there is a place - an important place - for pure research. But in general, academia gives insufficient weight to the importance of dissemination. Too many academics still think that getting their findings out into the public domain - whatever their "public" is - is a bit infra dig. We've got the balance wrong. After spending years working on a project, too many people publish and then promptly move on to the next project. At best, they put out one slightly half-hearted and verbose press release that is lucky to attract any attention at all. Many don't even do that. To take my own area, there are excellent research-based articles in journals such as Political Studies , Party Politics and Electoral Studies - articles that could help change aspects of contemporary political debate - and yet almost nobody knows about them.

Instead of seeing books and articles as the end product of our research, we should instead see them as the platform for our dissemination. What's the point of doing research if you don't tell people about it?

The Rebels: How Blair Mislaid His Majority by Philip Cowley has just been published by Politico's.

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