When Research Leaves the Academy or Press Releases Suck

I do a lot of research. Although I think much of what I do is important and makes a difference to the world, the reality is that rarely do more than a few other academics and graduate students read my research results. Two weeks ago, though, I got to see a research project I’ve been deeply involved in effectively “go viral”—well, at least as viral as a research study goes.

Watching the process unfold, I saw firsthand some of the shortcomings and challenges of doing public relations work around academic scholarship, especially when it’s multi-disciplinary and involves researchers at multiple institutions.

So, the backstory. In April, my co-authors and I had a paper published in the Journal of Information, Communication, & Society that reported on results of a labor-intensive, time consuming research project in which we were trying to identify characteristics of virtual world and online game behavior that indicates the players’ real-world characteristics like age and gender. We recruited 375 World of Warcraft players to play in small groups of 3-5 through a custom mod that we built. We recorded pretty much everything they did while they played the quest: chat, movement, inventory, and combat. We also surveyed players before and after the quest, asking about their gender, age, and a bunch of other stuff.

The article was titled “The Strategic Female: Gender-Switching and Player Behavior in Online Games” and it reports on our analysis of gender-switchers: men who picked female avatars to play through our quest, or women who picked male avatars. Almost 30% of our male players picked a female avatar, but only 7% of the women picked male avatars. Because there were so few women who were gender switchers, we only compared men who played male avatars, women who played female avatars, and men whogender_world_of_warcraft_avatars played female avatars. Although we found several interesting results, what seems to have resonated with the gamer community and the broader public is that we found men who gender switch talk a lot like women but move a lot like men. Their communication patterns didn’t entirely mimic female players who played women, but they incorporated feminine aspects to their speech in ways that men who played male avatars do not. But, their movements, like their distance from other avatars and walking backwards, looked just like men who played male avatars.

So, how did this study go viral?

Well, the fifth author of this study, Mia Consalvo, was contacted by a PR person from her university a few weeks ago asking if a press release on the study would be appropriate and not out of date. Mia thought a press release was still timely, and so the PR person wrote it up, quoting Mia, and then pitched it to several news outlets. CBSNews picked up the story, which basically reported the press release verbatim. Several news outlets followed, mostly reproducing the core of what was in the original press release. In all of those articles, Mia is mentioned and her university, since that’s what the press release focused on. But, the other authors, the ones who led the research, aren’t mentioned at all.

The continual pressure by universities to drum up press about their faculty and research means there isn’t an incentive to cross-promote researchers and scholarship that is jointly done with faculty at other universities. The focus is on quoting and highlighting what an institution’s own scholars are producing. Directly quoting or featuring faculty at other institutions who are involved in the research goes against public relations training, which focuses on promoting one’s own.

Journalists, for their part, seem to produce “news” the easiest way possible: reproduce what’s in a press release. When I was teaching political communication courses, students in my masters classes who worked for public relations firms brought in press releases they had written and then the news stories that were published, which faithfully reproduced the press releases. I didn’t fully believe it until living it myself, watching news outlet after news outlet reproduce the press release about research I put sleepless nights and stressful days into but now was completely unacknowledged.

As federal research dollars increasingly encourage and fund cross-institutional, multi-disciplinary scholarship, we will need to think more carefully about how to incentivize universities to promote the scholarship and the research teams involved in that scholarship. In the past, I’ve written my own press releases that featured the principle investigators of a multi-university consortium, quoting and featuring all of the researchers, then shared that with my press office at my university for distribution. Although I’m not especially interested to think about publicizing my research, but if I do the promotion, than at least I can give credit where credit is due.

One thought on “When Research Leaves the Academy or Press Releases Suck

  1. As the chief communications officer at a school unconnected with your project, I want to propose that your experience may be more indicative of sloppy PR work than a structural failing. A properly trained media person would be very careful to credit all researchers and their institutions. This is SOP at my institution and at other schools I worked at in the past. Whoever did this to you was either negligent or dissembling, but in any case put your colleague Mia in an awkward position by making it appear as if she were being intellectually dishonest by claiming sole credit. I’m sorry you and your fellow researchers had to deal with this.

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