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Is Think Tank Research Muscling In on the Media?

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The research that makes its way onto the front page of the newspaper or the evening news comes from a variety of sources, including universities, the federal government, and think tanks. That last group, though, causes the most concerns for a lot of thinkers in education. That's because think tank-generated studies, many of which bear a tinge of ideology, don't always undergo the same type of peer-review processes that academics go through in order for their work to appear in scholarly journals. Yet, the findings get the same kind of play in the media as other, more heavily scrutinized research.

To find out just how influential think tanks are becoming, a study out today compares research citations in 2007 and in the first six months of 2008 in Education Week, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. The news is mixed.

Researcher Holly Yettick, a grad student at the University of Colorado, reviewed 864 articles and found that think tanks were the third most common source of articles about education research after universities and government agencies. EdWeek most often cited university-based research in its articles, while The NYT and The Post cited research by government agencies more of the time. (Go EdWeek!)

But, when you take into account the fact that universities produce many more studies, the influence of think tanks begins to look a little more disproportionate, according to Yettick. She notes, for instance, that university-based studies were cited just twice as often as think tank reports, even though universities produced 14 to 16 times more studies.

Not all think tank research is bad, though. Some such studies yield information that's quite useful; others, not so much. And advocacy-oriented think tanks operate, of course, on both the right and the left. So which end of the political spectrum seems to be having the most sway? In all three newspapers, Yettick says, it's the right, followed by the center.

You should know that this paper is being released by the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado and the Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University, both frequent critics of education reforms favored by the right.

The findings provide a good opportunity for self-reflection, though. Personally, I've been criticized over the years by both the left and the right, which means I must be doing something right—at least that's what I like to think. But I wonder what careful readers of education research see. Do you feel that EdWeek and mainstream newspapers are inundating you with research articles from right-wing think tanks? Do I really want to know?

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