Academics, Policy Makers, Blogs, and the Trouble with Op-Eds

by Erik Voeten on September 5, 2013 · 6 comments

in Blogs,Policy

The most prolific way academics seek the attention of the public and policy makers is by writing op-eds in national newspapers. Does this type of writing give policy makers or the public what they need from academics? I am not so sure and an interesting article about the relationship between academics and policy makers in the Chronicle of Higher Education supports this view (at least in my mind).

An important starting point, made by James Goldgeier, is that policy makers simply don’t have the time to delve deeply into scholarly journals. Hence the need for academics to translate their findings into a more easily digestible format. Op-eds in prestigious outlets are both visible and short so they serve that purpose well. But what do policymakers actually want to hear from academics? According to the Chronicle, a forthcoming article in International Studies Quarterly authored by Paul Avey and Michael Desch (more on that article in the near future) concludes that:

Surveying national-security “decision makers,” the authors found that research was useful largely as “intellectual background,” and that scholars could be most valuable as “informal advisers.”

Stephen D. Krasner, a former director of policy planning at the State department and professor at Stanford University argues that:

Scholars can do two things well, he says: Provide empirical evidence about what has happened, and offer a conceptual framework through which to understand it.

In other words, scholars should not necessarily tell policy makers what to do but inform them what we can learn from the past and how to think about issues. This is what we try to do here at the Monkey Cage when we discuss what the experience of past military interventions may teach us about Syria or what Dan Drezner does when he evaluates a potential intervention from the perspective of international relations theory.

Can you really do this in an op-ed? Ultimately, the New York Times wants to know whether you think the U.S. should bomb Syria. They are somewhat interested in evidence or rationales but at the end of the day they do not like to see a nuanced or (worse) indeterminate conclusion. Just to illustrate: Ian Hurd published a New York Times op-ed headlined: Bomb Syria Even If It Is Illegal. The next day he went on Opinio Juris to clarify that he did not intend to argue that the U.S. should bomb Syria. Indeed, a legal analysis cannot provide a definitive answer to the question whether the U.S. should or should not engage in military action.

I don’t know where the headline came from in this case. Papers usually edit op-eds heavily and choose their own headlines. But authors can also appeal to editorial boards by providing clear and provocative conclusions. (Knowing Ian, in this case I suspect the former rather than the latter). Either way, op-eds are a problematic outlet if academics are primarily valuable for contributing empirical evidence and conceptual foundations, which often get lost in the desire for a catchy punchline. Some op-eds are more successful than others in preserving nuance but the pressure to deliver something catchy is always there.

My point is more than a bit self-serving: one of the real virtues of academic blogs is that they make academics less reliant on the op-ed as a way to publicize their work. Our blogs may produce pieces that yield unsatisfactory conclusions for some. They sure don’t have the prestige or visibility of a New York Times op-ed. That is a serious disadvantage and I don’t think blogs will replace op-eds anytime soon. Some blog posts, including this one, look very much like op-eds. More often than not, though, I think academics are better off resisting the temptation to try to make their public writing look like that of others who occupy the already amply populated class of pundits.  The promise of the academic blog is that it allows academics to stick to what they do best while making their research findings more accessible to the public and policy makers.

{ 6 comments }

Mihai Martoiu Ticu September 5, 2013 at 10:53 am

I don’t have any evidence for the following but my impression is that op-eds could have some positive effects. In the past there was little discussion about international law in the newspapers. Especially op-eds where just descriptions and fabulations about the Machiavellian machinations of the participants. As a result the public believed that international law was nonexistent or irrelevant, and that all that counts is power and cheating. Now I have seen much more op-eds about international law, explaining the rules in plain language and making people realize its importance. It seems therefore that international law will play a role in the public debate and therefore also effects on policy makers. So keep the op-eds coming.

Scott Monje September 5, 2013 at 11:24 am

Recent TV interviews on Syria have reinforced my impression that many journalists consider nuance and complexity to be somehow illegitimate. Anything that isn’t straightforward and simple–simplistic, really–is treated as an effort to fudge the issue and avoid the responsible task of taking a firm stand for or against something.

mort September 5, 2013 at 11:57 am

Not all op-ed venues are the same. NYT is notorious for its gatekeeping and selective points of view. Monkey Cage is much more democratic, open more viewpoints (grad students, senior profs, etc). Hope it remains so after moving to WaPo.

Brian September 6, 2013 at 6:10 am

A bit baffled by one side issue you mention; while headlines are always a risk in op-ed writing, I’ve published many and only saw one significant edit to the body text, ever. “Newspapers edit op-eds heavily” is true only if the op-eds suck. Half of the problem is that academics persist in speaking in absurd jargon that does little to add clarity or value to the debate, leaving editors with little choice but to clean the work up to make it accessible to readers. Wash that habit away and I suspect you’d have fewer moments of “confusion” when op-ed authors wake up the next morning to read what actually got printed.

Sandy Thatcher September 6, 2013 at 2:37 pm

In times past academics used to have more influence over policymaking and policymakers. Think of the days when books and articles by the likes of Bernard Brodie, Herman Kahn, Tom Schelling, and others underpinned policies like “mutual assured destruction” deterrence. Institutes like The RAND Corporation where many academics spent time regularly churned out reports, policy papers, and books to which policymakers seemed to pay attention. One would be hard pressed to come up with citations of articles and books that have played a similar role in recent decades. What has changed? Has academic research become less policy relevant? There still seem to be plenty of academics who make their way into government, like Condi Rice, Joe Nye, Steve Krasner, and others, after all.

Mark Kersten September 7, 2013 at 1:52 pm

A very insightful and interesting read – thanks for sharing!

I think, however, that the post misses one important point: that academics write op-eds to build a repertoire or portfolio that helps them get ‘in the door’ to policy-makers. It’s not always the worth or weight of the specific op-ed that matters. Op-eds can help build credibility for the academic which can, in turn, get them into the decision-making room. And that doesn’t necessarily speak to the content of any given op-ed but having a series of op-eds in respected news outlets builds confidence that the academic can communicate plainly and that he/she has a wider audience and interest in whatever it is they study/do. In other words, I think the value of op-eds to the academic is indirect credibility and trust building rather than its utility as a direct line of communication to policy makers.

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