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TEDxMileHighWomen

Erica Stone: Academic research is publicly funded -- why isn't it publicly available?

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In the US, your taxes fund academic research at public universities. Why then do you need to pay expensive, for-profit journals for the results of that research? Erica Stone advocates for a new, open-access relationship between the public and scholars, making the case that academics should publish in more accessible media. "A functioning democracy requires that the public be well-educated and well-informed," Stone says. "Instead of research happening behind paywalls and bureaucracy, wouldn't it be better if it was unfolding right in front of us?"

- Writer, teacher, community organizer
Erica Stone works at the intersection of writing, teaching, and community organizing. Full bio

Do you ever find yourself
referencing a study in conversation
00:12
that you didn't actually read?
00:17
(Laughter)
00:20
I was having coffee
with a friend of mine the other day,
00:22
and I said, "You know, I read a new study
00:25
that says coffee reduces
the risk of depression in women."
00:28
But really, what I read was a tweet.
00:32
(Laughter)
00:37
That said --
00:39
(Laughter)
00:40
"A new study says drinking coffee
may decrease depression risk in women."
00:41
(Laughter)
00:45
And that tweet had a link
to the "New York Times" blog,
00:47
where a guest blogger translated
the study findings
00:51
from a "Live Science" article,
00:54
which got its original information
00:56
from the Harvard School
of Public Health news site,
00:58
which cited the actual study abstract,
01:02
which summarized the actual study
published in an academic journal.
01:05
(Laughter)
01:09
It's like the six degrees of separation,
01:11
but with research.
01:14
(Laughter)
01:15
So, when I said I read a study,
01:16
what I actually read was 59 characters
that summarized 10 years of research.
01:20
(Laughter)
01:26
So, when I said I read a study,
01:28
I was reading fractions of the study
01:30
that were put together
by four different writers
01:34
that were not the author,
01:36
before it got to me.
01:38
That doesn't seem right.
01:40
But accessing original
research is difficult,
01:42
because academics aren't regularly
engaging with popular media.
01:46
And you might be asking yourself,
01:50
why aren't academics engaging
with popular media?
01:52
It seems like they'd be
a more legitimate source of information
01:55
than the media pundits.
01:58
Right?
02:00
(Laughter)
02:01
In a country with over
4,100 colleges and universities,
02:03
it feels like this should be the norm.
02:06
But it's not.
02:09
So, how did we get here?
02:11
To understand why scholars
aren't engaging with popular media,
02:14
you first have to understand
how universities work.
02:17
Now, in the last six years,
02:21
I've taught at seven
different colleges and universities
02:22
in four different states.
02:25
I'm a bit of an adjunct extraordinaire.
02:27
(Laughter)
02:29
And at the same time, I'm pursuing my PhD.
02:30
In all of these different institutions,
02:33
the research and publication process
works the same way.
02:35
First, scholars produce
research in their fields.
02:39
To fund their research,
they apply for public and private grants
02:42
and after the research is finished,
02:46
they write a paper about their findings.
02:48
Then they submit that paper
to relevant academic journals.
02:50
Then it goes through a process
called peer review,
02:54
which essentially means that other experts
02:57
are checking it
for accuracy and credibility.
02:59
And then, once it's published,
03:02
for-profit companies
resell that information
03:04
back to universities and public libraries
03:08
through journal
and database subscriptions.
03:10
So, that's the system.
03:13
Research, write, peer-review,
publish, repeat.
03:16
My friends and I call it
feeding the monster.
03:21
And you can see how this
might create some problems.
03:25
The first problem is that most
academic research is publicly funded
03:29
but privately distributed.
03:34
Every year, the federal government
spends 60 billion dollars on research.
03:37
According to the National
Science Foundation,
03:42
29 percent of that
goes to public research universities.
03:44
So, if you're quick at math,
that's 17.4 billion dollars.
03:47
Tax dollars.
03:53
And just five corporations are responsible
03:55
for distributing most
publicly funded research.
03:58
In 2014, just one of those companies
made 1.5 billion dollars in profit.
04:00
It's a big business.
04:07
And I bet you can see the irony here.
04:09
If the public is funding
academics' research,
04:12
but then we have to pay again
to access the results,
04:15
it's like we're paying for it twice.
04:19
And the other major problem
04:22
is that most academics
don't have a whole lot of incentive
04:24
to publish outside of these prestigious
subscription-based journals.
04:26
Universities build their tenure
and promotion systems
04:30
around the number of times
scholars publish.
04:33
So, books and journal articles are kind of
like a form of currency for scholars.
04:36
Publishing articles helps you get tenure
and more research grants down the road.
04:40
But academics are not rewarded
for publishing with popular media.
04:45
So, this is the status quo.
04:50
The current academic ecosystem.
04:54
But I don't think it has to be this way.
04:56
We can make some simple changes
to flip the script.
04:59
So, first, let's start
by discussing access.
05:04
Universities can begin
to challenge the status quo
05:08
by rewarding scholars for publishing
05:12
not just in these
subscription-based journals
05:14
but in open-access journals
as well as on popular media.
05:16
Now, the open-access movement
is starting to make some progress
05:21
in many disciplines,
05:24
and fortunately, some other
big players have started to notice.
05:26
Google Scholar has made
open-access research
05:30
searchable and easier to find.
05:33
Congress, last year, introduced a bill
05:37
that suggests that academic
research projects
05:40
with over 100 million or more in funding
05:43
should develop an open-access policy.
05:46
And this year, NASA opened up
its entire research library to the public.
05:49
So, you can see this idea
is beginning to catch on.
05:55
But access isn't just about being able
05:59
to get your hands
on a document or a study.
06:02
It's also about making sure
06:05
that that document or study
is easily understood.
06:06
So, let's talk about translation.
06:09
I don't envision this translation to look
like the six degrees of separation
06:15
that I illustrated earlier.
06:20
Instead, what if scholars were able
to take the research that they're doing
06:23
and translate it on popular media
06:27
and be able to engage with the public?
06:29
If scholars did this,
06:33
the degrees of separation
between the public and research
06:35
would shrink by a lot.
06:38
So, you see, I'm not suggesting
a dumbing-down of the research.
06:40
I'm just suggesting that we give
the public access to that research
06:44
and that we shift the venue
and focus on using plain language
06:47
so that the public
who's paying for the research
06:51
can also consume it.
06:54
And there are some other benefits
to this approach.
06:57
By showing the public
how their tax dollars
07:01
are being used to fund research,
07:04
they can begin to redefine
universities' identities
07:06
so that universities' identities
are not just based on a football team
07:09
or the degrees they grant
07:13
but on the research
that's being produced there.
07:15
And when there's a healthy relationship
between the public and scholars,
07:19
it encourages public
participation in research.
07:24
Can you imagine what that might look like?
07:28
What if social scientists
07:32
helped local police redesign
their sensitivity trainings
07:33
and then collaboratively wrote
a manual to model future trainings?
07:37
Or what if our education professors
consulted with our local public schools
07:42
to decide how we're going to intervene
with our at-risk students
07:48
and then wrote about it
in a local newspaper?
07:51
Because a functioning democracy
07:55
requires that the public be
well-educated and well-informed.
07:58
Instead of research happening
behind paywalls and bureaucracy,
08:03
wouldn't it be better
if it was unfolding right in front of us?
08:07
Now, as a PhD student,
08:12
I realize I'm critiquing
the club I want to join.
08:15
(Laughter)
08:18
Which is a dangerous thing to do,
08:19
since I'm going to be on the academic
job market in a couple of years.
08:21
But if the status quo in academic research
08:25
is to publish in the echo chambers
of for-profit journals
08:28
that never reach the public,
08:31
you better believe
my answer is going to be "nope."
08:34
I believe in inclusive,
democratic research
08:38
that works in the community
and talks with the public.
08:41
I want to work in research
and in an academic culture
08:45
where the public is not only seen
as a valuable audience,
08:48
but a constituent, a participant.
08:51
And in some cases even the expert.
08:55
And this isn't just about
09:00
giving you guys access to information.
09:04
It's about shifting academic culture
from publishing to practice
09:08
and from talking to doing.
09:13
And you should know
that this idea, this hope --
09:17
it doesn't just belong to me.
09:21
I'm standing on the shoulders
of many scholars, teachers,
09:23
librarians and community members
09:27
who also advocate for including
more people in the conversation.
09:30
I hope you join our conversation, too.
09:34
Thank you.
09:37
(Applause)
09:38

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About the speaker:

Erica Stone - Writer, teacher, community organizer
Erica Stone works at the intersection of writing, teaching, and community organizing.

Why you should listen

Through collaborative projects, Erica Stone creates opportunities for scholars, students and community members to engage in conversations and civic problem-solving with the hope of building a more equitable and just democracy. As a researcher, she's passionate about making academic scholarship free and accessible.

More profile about the speaker
Erica Stone | Speaker | TED.com