How researchers get heard

Your Idea’s Opponents Are Its Best Friends

Which new idea will get noticed first?

a) The idea its obvious opponents don’t even know about; or

b) The idea its obvious opponents can’t stop talking about.

Obviously, b).

And — just as obviously — researchers almost always prefer a).

Research culture — except in journal letters and responses — frowns upon taking new ideas straight at the opponents or potential opponents of those ideas. That’s too aggressive, we’re taught. Don’t want to risk making enemies! Better to launch our idea quietly — subtweeting — and hope it gains traction without a fight. Besides, doesn’t “everyone” already know who we’re talking about, anyway?

The real risk of this approach: We continue to miss giant opportunities to promote our new ideas.

Let me walk my own talk. Arvind Subramanian (former chief economic adviser to the government of India) and Devesh Kapur (professor at Johns Hopkins’ Nitze School) wrote a quietly devastating piece for Project Syndicate late last month about the need to decolonize development economics (“The Absent Voices of Development Economics”). In it, they argue that

  • “a small number of rich-country institutions have appropriated” development economics;
  • these institutions systematically fail to train, hire, promote, fund and publish economists from low-income countries;
  • low-income countries reinforce this exclusion by almost exclusively valuing research from these rich-country institutions; and
  • the high cost of holding randomized control trials (RCTs), which have swept though development economics to become a new research standard over the last decade plus, has become an additional barrier to low-income country researchers seeking to publish in prestigious economics journals.

That’s a hell of a series of charges, and Subramanian and Kapur have some amazing stats to back them up — stats of such absurd underrepresentation of low-income country researchers as to seem parodical. Just two of the 80 editors on the masthead of the Journal of Development Economics , for instance, are from low-income countries — both of them associate editors.

But did this Project Syndicate piece engage the right people? Did it provoke a chastened response from policymakers, much less journal editors or prominent proponents of RCTs in development studies (AKA, the “randomistas”) such as the Nobel Prize winners Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee?

Not that I can see, at least on Twitter. And Subramanian is no Twitter minnow — he’s got more than 140K followers. But the Twitter promotion of the Project Syndicate piece didn’t tag any of the journals or institutions Subramanian and Kapur called out in the piece. It didn’t tag any of the journal editors or researchers or heads of those institutions — none of whom, by the way, the authors mentioned in the piece, either.

It doesn’t make sense for Subramanian (Kapur isn’t on social media) to attack and demonize Duflo, Banerjee, other researchers, or journal editors. But it doesmake sense to make those “opponents” of the Project Syndicate piece an explicit part of the conversation that promotes the piece — centered on the disparities the piece highlights and what to do about them. There are artful, constructive ways to foster that engagement, even on Twitter. And you want your idea’s opponents engaged, because you want to leverage their networks, not just your own. That’s fungal thinking at its best. Or pollination thinking, as my mentor Rochelle Moulton says.

Work backwards from your desired result if you’re blanching at this approach. In this case, Subramanian and Kapur want policymakers, rich-country research institutions and centers, and prominent researchers to recognize this disparity and its structural drivers and address it systematically.

Of course you need all those people and organizations to know about your argument. And it’s your responsibility as your idea’s primary proponent to make them aware.

Research continues to promote in communications mode, not marketing mode. But ideas don’t advance through communications — through saying something once, “putting it out there” and then abandoning it for the next idea.

Ideas advance through marketing — through seeding, pollinating, engaging, leveraging and campaigns that rely on repetition and core messaging. Your own network is dwarfed by all those potential opponents of your idea who would have a public reaction to it — and spur reactions in their networks, many favorable toward your idea — if they only knew about it. We have to balance the harshness of Twitter — harsher for many — with the fact that our idea’s opponents can be its best friends.