Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Research and Policy: What conferences can teach us

A couple of weeks ago,  attended the big education research conference (i.e. the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association). It's a week long, with hundreds or even over 1,000 of panels, thousands of papers, over 13,000 presenters, over 16,000 attendees. It lasts a week, taking over all the conference rooms in a few large hotel the middle of the host city, New York this year.

There are always a few panels on the topic of how research can inform policy, or why it does not. I always attend a few of these, as I only care about doing research insofar as it will actually make a difference for schools and children. 

A good friend of mine had an odd experience during her session. One of the presenters failed to show up, meaning that there were only three papers to present. They had been grouped under a common theme, but the papers were quite different. The additional time gained by only having three presenters resulted in a real conversation between them, something that there hardly ever is time for at these things. Sure, panels that bring together for discussions might take the form of a conversation, but rarely do those based on presenting papers (i.e. research). 

You see, the timing just doesn't work out. Each session gets about 90 minutes, with perhaps 5 minutes taken up for introductions and transitions. Each presenter gets about 15 minutes, and the discussant gets the same. That leaves ten minutes for questions from the audience, at best. If presenters or the discussant go long, that come out of the Q&A. Obviously, there just isn't time for a real discussion. Moreover, if the panelists knew there would only be three papers, they'd present for 20 minutes each. It was just the accident of the missing panelist that gave them the extra time for discussion -- and likely a discussant who was more interested in letting the panelists speak than in hearing his/her own voice. Obviously, sessions with five papers are even more crunched for time.

My friend remarked to me on what a great experience this was, and how she wished that all sessions could be like this. She conceded that it would mean that fewer papers would be accepted, but thought that it was worth it.

In my opinion, she was missing the purpose of this conference. She was accepting it on face value, that it was to spread knowledge and learning. I think that she was just wrong in this.

The purpose of this conference, like virtually every other academic conference, is to have somewhere to present papers. It is so that we can fill up our CVs. It is so we can show that we are doing real work. Of course, other people rarely actually read the papers we write for these conferences. If we are doing it right, we actually just present drafts of articles that we hope to get published in journals. Journals that few people people will read except to find references and citations to add to the papers and articles that they themselves are writing.

An exaggeration? Sure, but not much of one.

Of course, these conferences also exist for networking purposes. There are any number of social events, and everyone in the field is in town for this one. I know that every year I see people whom I both like and respect, but whom I never see otherwise. 

But no one actually thinks that people are going to read their papers. The association tells presenters to print 12 copies of their paper, and two more with large text for those with poor vision. A small minority of presenters actually do this. Most presenters tell people to email them to ask for a copy of the paper, but they seem surprised when this actually happens. Some respond that their papers are still in process, or data is still being added, or they are being revised based on the feedback they received at the conference. 

This year, I emailed nearly 90 requests for copies of papers presented this year. Only about half replied by sending them to me, and most of them seem surprised at the reqest. Five more just emailed me copies of their slides. Half a dozen said that their papers would be ready in a 2-5 weeks. And the rest, more than a third, did not even respond at all. This matches my experience in years past. (Of course, I don't ask discussants for their notes, or people on discussion panels for papers. These numbers only refer to people who were supposed to present papers.)

I don't think that this means that the conference is a fraud, or that the presentations are frauds. Rather, it indicates that the purpose of the conference is not actually the sharing of papers, that it is not learning on the part of attendees. And it is not fraudulent because everyone knows already knows this. I only think that one of my two papers this year was really any good, but I am not worried about it because I do not think that anyone is ever going to read it.


And now, back to the point. Why don't people who make policy listen to researchers?

There are standard reasons given all the time. Researchers can't answer questions fast enough for policy-makers. Researchers come up with different answers over time. Researchers often can't explain that the single salient feature or trait is, making their answers too complicated to be the basis of policy -- or even too incomplete. Policy-makers care more about the appearance of making a difference than actually solving problems. Etc., etc..

These reasons may all be true. But I don't think that any of them are the most fundamental problem. 

Rather, I think that the major reason is that most researchers just don't care. 

Their job is to do research. Or, perhaps, it is to get papers published. But their job is not to make a difference in schools or for students. It is not even to have influence in their profession. And the rest is just not of concern to them. If so many researchers don't care if anyone reads their papers, why should anything think that they care about influencing policy. Moreover, these attitudes are learned somewhere. 

I had an interesting conversation with a professor from the midwest who used the phrase, "Caught, not taught" to explain how most lessons in schools are transmitted, be they for the better (e.g. the value of hard work, the importance of treating people with respect) or worse (e.g. the relative importance of style over substance, of politics over results). It is not that anyone means to teach young researchers (i.e. doctoral students and junior faculty) that making a difference in schools does not matter, but that view is caught by them nonetheless. 

We, as group, are rewarded for publication and have not insisted on other measures of success, nor have put those other measures first in our own careers. We are not actually interested in sharing our work with others, and certainly not in a form that does not contribute to the particular system in which we are locked.

So, is it any wonder that policy-makers don't listen to us? I don't think that we actually are trying to say anything to them. 

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