Why professors should write newspaper commentaries, according to two academics

A rack displaying copies of The Straits Times at a Shell petrol station on Braddell Road. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
A rack displaying copies of The Straits Times at a Shell petrol station on Braddell Road. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

University professors are busy people who have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of hard slog to build up their credentials and their expertise.

Yet some of them routinely spend hours writing commentaries for newspapers such as The Straits Times. I know how hard some of them work over their commentaries, because I deal directly with them, and I am often grateful for their diligence.

What’s the incentive? Why do they bother?

An interesting article on this topic was an eye-opener for me this week.

Professor Asit K. Biswas, a water policy expert now with the National University of Singapore and Julian Kirchherr, an Oxford University researcher, wrote a piece titled Professors, No One is Listening to You.

Some professors disdain the popular media and write only academic articles in journals. Trouble is, no one reads those. Well, almost no one.

Here’s what they say: “Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within scientific communities - 82 percent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once.

“No one ever refers to 32 percent of the peer-reviewed articles in the social and 27 percent in the natural sciences.

“If a paper is cited, this does not imply it has actually been read. According to one estimate, only 20 percent 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.”

Spend months writing a serious academic article read by 10 people? It sounds like Love’s Labour’s Lost to me.

How about a newspaper commentary? Well, The Straits Times has a readership of about 1.1 million. Granted, not all read serious Opinion articles. But many do. These days, commentaries are also posted online, and we can track their reach.

Just how well-read are they?

Former Nominated MP Calvin Cheng wrote a recent commentary rebutting western critics who said Mr Lee Kuan Yew had traded civil liberties for economic prosperity. This was after Mr Lee’s death on March 23.

On The Straits Times’ web page alone, the article was shared 65,900 times on Facebook. The article was posted first on March 27 at 12.30 am. It got 65,900 shares on Facebook, meaning that number of people presumably read the article and liked it enough to share it on their own Facebook pages.

Of course being shared on social media doesn’t have the same cachet as being published in a top-grade academic journal.

But in the same article, Asit and Julian refer to a leading journal on water policy to point out its limited impact:

“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 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 policy making in India, where water is a very critical issue, is zero.”

The two writers think universities should assess scholars' impact on policy formulation and public debates as part of the appraisal process.

To be sure, academic articles can advance knowledge. A small number may become seminal sources in their fields, or shape policy.

But many disappear into the ether. And yes, newspaper commentaries can also suffer the same fate.

But if they are well-written, with a strong point of view, chances are that they will connect with readers.

Don’t take it from me. I have a professional, vested interest, as Opinion Editor of The Straits Times, in pushing the argument that serious experts should write newspaper commentaries because they make a difference to people’s lives and to policies.

Take it from two academics themselves.

Chua Mui Hoong blogs weekly on notable commentaries and issues.

muihoong@sph.com.sg