American Sociological Association

ASA Task Force Issues Report on Evaluating Public Communication in Tenure and Promotion

August 22, 2016

Washington, DC — Increasingly, social scientists use multiple forms of communication to engage broader audiences with their research and contribute to solutions of the pressing problems of our time. Yet, in academia, it is unclear whether these efforts to communicate with the public should count when colleges and universities are evaluating scholars.

To address this issue, the American Sociological Association (ASA) convened a task force on public communication and social media, which issued a report assessing how tenure and promotion committees might consider researchers’ involvement in these types of communications activities.

Titled, “What Counts? Evaluating Public Communication in Tenure and Promotion,” the report is designed to help individual researchers planning their careers and academic departments and administrative bodies, as well as members of the media, wishing to assess contributions from academics.

“Considering how public communications might be used in tenure and promotion is critically important for emerging scholars, who often feel pulled in multiple directions as they work to establish themselves in the discipline,” said Sarah M. Ovink, a task force member and an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Tech. “I hope that one outcome of the report is that more departments will begin to take concrete steps toward rewarding and supporting public engagement in order to make it ‘count.’”

Leslie McCall, the lead author of the report and a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, said, “I engage with the ‘conventional’ media on a frequent basis, but I do not use social media and had little appreciation of its importance, particularly for junior faculty, until joining this committee.”

The report discusses the pros and cons of social scientists engaging in public communication and social media. While it does not take a stand on the desirability of this activity, it offers suggestions for how to assess the quality of contributions:

  • Type of content (e.g., public communication can include original research, synthesis, explanatory journalism, opinion, or application of research to a practical issue). Regardless of the type of communication, an overriding criterion might be whether a given piece is well grounded in sociological theory and research. 
  • Rigor and quality of the communication (e.g., peer-reviewed, vetted by an editor, or a non-reviewed blog post). The main criteria here might be whether the piece communicates effectively through clear writing, foregrounding of policy implications, and compliance with the format, technology, and standards of effective engagement with public audiences.
  • Public impact (e.g., number of readers or views, evidence that practitioners found the work to be helpful, or documentation of the role the work played in policy changes). No single measure of reach or impact is sufficient, but solicitation of letters from affected parties outside of academia can be especially effective in conveying impact. 

According to 2017 ASA President Michèle Lamont, a Harvard University sociology professor, who wrote the book How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment, “The rules of academic evaluation are being transformed by social media. Reputations are not made the way they used to be. This report offers tools to guide us in this brave new world.”

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About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.

The report described above is available by request. For a copy of the report, contact Daniel Fowler, ASA Media Relations Manager, at (202) 527-7885 or pubinfo@asanet.org.