Why Writing for Psychology Today Is a Good Idea
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


Marc Bekoff, Psychology Today - Animal Emotions
April 2015

There really is no reason why academics can't write both for their colleagues and a broad audience.

Writing for popular audiences is more effective than publishing in journals.

From time to time people ask me why I write for Psychology Today and other popular media. While I also publish extensively in academic media, I've always felt that writing for a broad audience is a much more effective way to call attention to a particular topic and to foster change. Indeed, I once was told by a chairperson that even publishing in prestigious popular science magazines was a total waste of time and wouldn't count toward my puny merit increase in salary. And, I know I'm not alone in being given that warning—publish or perish.

Because I've always felt that to make change we must engage non-academics and also that researchers are obligated to share their findings outside of the ivory tower, a recent essay by Asit Biswar and Julian Kirchherr called "Prof, no one is reading you (link is external)," caught my eye. Their piece is an easy read, but here are some snippets to whet your appetite for learning more about just how ineffective are the vast majority of academic journal publications.

Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within scientific communities—82 per cent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once. No one ever refers to 32 per cent of the peer-reviewed articles in the social and 27 per cent in the natural sciences.

If a paper is cited, this does not imply it has actually been read. According to one estimate, only 20 per cent of papers cited have actually been read. We estimate that an average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read completely by no more than 10 people. Hence, impacts of most peer-reviewed publications even within the scientific community are minuscule.

We know of no senior policymaker or senior business leader who ever read regularly any peer-reviewed papers in well-recognised journals like Nature, Science or Lancet.

If the highest impact journal in the water field is considered, it has only four subscribers in India with a population of some 1.3 billion. Three years ago, neither the water minister nor those three levels below him had even heard of this journal. While a publication in such a journal will bring kudos to a professor, its impact on policymaking in India, where water is a very critical issue, is zero.

I've always been interested in learning more about the impact of academic publications. Years ago I learned that in his book called Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science, the renowned philosopher David Hull noted that publishing a paper in an academic journal was equivalent to tossing it into a garbage pail (Bekoff, M. 1989. Assessing publication impact. BioScience 39: 586).

A recent example shows just how effective mass media can be. To wit, it took an essay by Michael Moss in the New York Times, rather than a large number of scientific essays about animal cognition and sentience, to motivate politicians to get involved and to generate bipartisan support to protect "food animals" who are routinely and egregiously abused in "meat research" at Nebraska's tax-payer financed U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (link is external). The data, published in highly respected peer-reviewed scientific journals, have been available for a long time but had no impact on offering legislation to protect these sentient beings.

I highly recommend Asit Biswar and Julian Kirchherr's essay. And, there really is no reason why academics can't write both for their colleagues and a broad audience.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation, Why dogs hump and bees get depressed, and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence. The Jane effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) has recently been published. (marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)

Return to Animal Rights Articles