What is press-worthy scholarship?


As I was avoiding real work and morning traffic, there were a bunch of interesting things on twitter, as usual. Two things stood out.

First was a conversation among science writers, about how to find good science stories among press releases. I was wondering about all of the fascinating papers that never get press releases, but I didn’t want to butt into that conversation.

The second thing was a series of tweets that were poking fun at a university press release about some non-news. It was mean-spirited enough in nature that I’m not linking to it.

I get it, you’re thinking right now: breaking news: people are mean on twitter.

Well yeah, that’s sometimes true, but this is a bit different, because it’s higher-profile people punching down at lower-profile people. There’s a hashtag making light of a press release involving the professional service of a university scholar. Some highly eminent scientists have been a part of this. (I’m reluctant to say, but I don’t want to tease you without being clear, so if you must check it out, then look into #psubreakingnews.)

What is this object of humor? A professor was invited to review a manuscript for a peer-reviewed journal. And this professor somehow notified the press office about it, and a brief press-release was created about it. It is rather odd, considering the number of manuscripts that are reviewed every day. This implies that this faculty member isn’t accustomed to being invited into the peer review process.

I can see how this is hilarious to faculty members that edit journals, and publish a lot, and get far too many review requests than they can possibly accept. (This is a common conversation topic on twitter.) So it is silly, a little Onionesque, when a press release goes out when a professor is asked to perform a review.

But here’s the thing: this press release was presumably made because the person featured in it considers this to be newsworthy. It communicates something about their professional status. Please keep in mind that being in a position to review an article for a legitimate and internationally known journal means that you are a legitimate and internationally known scholar. For a lot of people who work in universities, this is more than a trivial thing. This might come as a surprise to you, if you’re not a regular reader of this site, but a lot of tenured faculty are not internationally recognized scholars.

Why would you want to punch down at the person at the center of this?

I’m pointing this out because this kind of thing is a regular occurrence on my campus. There are some outstanding scholars on my campus who do groundbreaking research. There are other outstanding scholars on my campus who don’t publish groundbreaking research, and have chosen to focus their efforts on teaching or institutional service. I value these colleagues equally. And when they have successes, I’m glad when they celebrate.

I remember a few years ago how a couple faculty members wrote up a summary of their work that was featured in a daily listserv in their speciality, which was presented as a big accomplishment. Someone gave a talk about their research at a nearby university and that made the campus news. Someone’s undergraduate gave presented a poster at a national conference, and that was a big deal for some. At many places, and for many people, these things are not newsworthy. But for others, they genuinely matter.

When I went to a meeting with our upper admins about putting together my promotion file a few years ago, I was instructed to put manuscript reviews under “scholarship,” and not “service,” because reviews are an important sign of your status in the academic community. (I did list them under “service” anyway.) So at my university, for a lot of our faculty who do a great job and are talented, getting invited to review a manuscript is meaningful. I understand this.

So if you get scores of (non-spam) review invitations per month, why would you take your time to publicly mock someone who gets a single review invite? Instead of using this as a chance to mock a university press office, maybe this could be a chance to consider the day-to-day life of the actual person whose face is featured in that press release? And how this person must feel about it when discovering when they are the topic (if not the target) of mockery?

Remember that social media involves real people. Please regard other people with the same respect that you would as if they were in the same room with you. By taking others down, you are not elevating yourself.

7 thoughts on “What is press-worthy scholarship?

  1. Thanks for this very decent perspective. I’ve been guilty of chiming in on this too and not calling out arrogance (though in my case it’s more of punching up/across than punching down as I’m an early career postdoc and some of these people are associate profs)

    I agree completely that people should behave on social media as if they were face to face with the people in question.

    However, I think the Penn College press office is currently looking like an Onion parody site because some of their un-pressreleases have been there since 2006! (see http://news.psu.edu/story/205957/2006/01/20/math-professor-presents-international-workshop-conference).

    I get your point that maybe this does count as news in a smaller college, but one would expect that it should be in a departmental newsletter, and not on the college’s public facing PR site.

    I also doubt very much that peer-reviewing/conf-presentations are a rare or first time occurrence for the faculty in these press releases (they seem to be established scholars with many papers under their belts), which makes me think that these Press releases could be the consequence of an over-enthusiastic dept admin/head who wants more publicity for the dept/college but hasn’t calibrated their idea of what should count as news (someone on twitter suggested this, but I can’t find it now). Ridicule is not the way to go about correcting this though – and I apologise for that. Thanks for pointing out the tone.

  2. There are often similar kinds of things in my university’s monthly dateline report designed for public consumption. It definitely shows that we are not an R1 and there are different standards for what is exciting news. I don’t think anybody at CSUDH or Penn College would appreciate being told what “one would expect” from an institution that isn’t regarded as a peer. If it’s not right to judge, then it’s not right to judge. Period.

  3. Terry, These are important points for many of life’s situations. One rarely knows where other people are coming from or going through. Start from kindness. And that is not always easy.

  4. I’m the person who created that hashtag. Your points are very well taken. Clearly I did not think things through thoroughly.

  5. Thank you for the perspective! I have removed my retweet pointing to the article.

    When I first saw the article I imagined a situation where the professor was getting pressured to put something out for the PR office, and decided to troll them with news that she was invited to review a manuscript. In retrospect this seems unlikely, and I agree all the attention very much seems to be “punching down.”

  6. Of course expectations are different for a small teaching college than for a large research university. My interpretation that people did not distinguish between Penn College and the University, especially as the press release was done by Penn State University, and the page title highlighted PSU, not by Penn College.

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