New Measures of Academic Impact

by Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

The Dean’s Perspective focuses on issues pertinent to the relationship between academic public health and the practice community.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

Recently, I published an article in an online publication called The Conversation. This outlet consists of scientific articles for lay audiences written by scientists. I wrote an article examining whether parks in the United States should be designed for older adults. This article was based on several of my previous studies in parks in the US and in China, where we found huge differences in the number of older adults who used parks in China compared to the US. Currently in the US, most parks are designed for children and adolescents with an emphasis on playgrounds, basketball courts, and ball fields. This is an important policy discussion and conversation for us to have across the nation as our population ages. Unfortunately, this step of writing for popular consumption is one that most public health faculty members do not take, but one that I would argue should be a critical part of our jobs. In less than a week, my article has been read over 8,000 times. By way of comparison, my 100+ scientific papers on ResearchGate, a popular research platform, have been read by 10,000 people in the last four years.

This ability to share my ideas with a wide audience got me thinking about the tenure and promotion process in schools of public health. Traditionally, academics have been rewarded for publications in well-respected journals and citations of their work by other academics. So our work has been recognized by how we influence other academics, not how we affect public health practice, inform policy debates, or educate the public. Influencing other academics is fine if you’re a professor of ancient languages, but it shouldn’t be sufficient for public health faculty whose work, in my opinion, should be affecting the public’s health.

An emerging field in library science is the measurement of alt-metrics. This looks at the impact of academic work in the popular press, on Twitter, and other social media platforms. In my school, we have several faculty who have embraced the idea of measuring and assessing the public health impact of their work. Faculty who are studying standing desks, fall prevention, disaster preparedness, and joint use agreements between parks and schools are routinely translating this knowledge into formats that can be used by non-academics. Specifically, one of our outstanding faculty, Alva Ferdinand, has studied the effects of state laws banning texting while driving. She has shown that states with bans where the police can ticket for just that offense have a dramatically reduced rate of traffic fatalities. She has been called on several times to testify at the state and local level on her findings, and she may be the deciding factor for getting texting while driving banned throughout the state of Texas. This will save lives. This is public health. This should be reflected in the tenure and promotion process in schools of public health. I know Texas A&M will be looking at public health impact in our tenure and promotion process. I hope the other schools join us.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD is the Dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. He is internationally recognized for his research in social ecological approaches to increasing physical activity. He has served as principal investigator on over $18 million in extramural funding and authored over 100 scientific articles. [Full Bio]

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