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October 10, 2011

You might think a debate over a supposed "theory of everything" — between a surfer-physicist and a rock climber-mathematician, no less — would get some attention outside of scholarly circles.

But when Skip Garibaldi, a mathematician at Emory University, refuted a unified field theory proposed by A. Garrett Lisi, a physicist and surfing enthusiast, Garibaldi did not get much play in the popular press. Lisi floated the theory in 2007. His paper had not been peer-reviewed, but the Daily Telegraph nonetheless wrote it up, and The New Yorker profiled Lisi. Lisi was also invited to give a TED talk about his theory.

When Garibaldi published (with Jacques Distler, a particle physicist at the University of Texas) a rebuttal in a peer-reviewed journal, neither publication came knocking. The mainstream press, it appeared, would happily abide a Maui-dwelling iconoclast looking to upend the scientific establishment with a heady idea, but had little patience once the narrative turned into a wonky debate about the finer points.

Where Garibaldi and Distler's counterpunch did find some traction was in the secondary orbit of popular media that has emerged with the social Web. A link to the news got posted on Reddit.com, the news aggregator. Same with StumbleUpon.com, and a blog for the hacker site Y Combinator. The link got passed around on Twitter. In all, 30,000 people clicked through the link, which sent them to a story about the bubble-bursting paper posted on Futurity.org. The author was Carol Clark, a communications official at Emory.

Futurity, a website that aggregates articles on scientific research written by university communications staffers, opened in late 2009 amid anxieties that upheaval in the media world might mean weaker coverage of academic research in the popular press. Two years later, Futurity has nearly doubled its membership — universities that underwrite the site and supply it with content — from 35 to 60 institutions. Several popular news aggregators regularly feature the site’s content, and its member universities are seeing a bump in traffic to their institutional websites, according to Jenny Leonard, Futurity’s editor.

The site’s growth is an encouraging sign at a time when newspapers and newsweeklies -- which have traditionally served as intermediaries between the work of university researchers, especially in science, and the public that funds them -- are on the decline, says Leonard. “With the decline of those kinds of reporting, we thought Futurity could play a role in sort of filling the vacuum in some way,” she says.

In the new media landscape, many universities are finding out that the “way” can lead directly from its institutional website to highly-trafficked content aggregators and link-sharing networks, allowing them to sidestep the process of soliciting traditional news outlets to write about their faculty’s research. Futurity has worked out deals with the popular website AllTop.com and the app-based aggregators Flipboard and Pulse to share Futurity content with their many followers and subscribers.

Thus Futurity, which helps universities on an invitation-only basis, hopes to boost its members’ research by giving their articles the chance to climb escalating layers of aggregated content. “On their own, I don’t think they could figure out those relationships,” Leonard says. “I think the aggregation has been pivotal for opening those doors.”

Many universities still push their content the old-fashioned way: writing press releases and pitching journalists. At a time when an intriguing link can “go viral” regardless of whether its content bears the imprimatur of a traditional news organization, many universities prefer to publish articles themselves and deliver them straight to news curators and online social networks. The University of Rochester has seen some self-published releases get tens of thousands of hits, says Leonard, who is based there.

“We live in a world now where universities are going directly to our audiences,” says David Jarmul, the associate vice president for news and communications at Duke University. “We are now producing material very much with the final reader in mind,” he says. “We’re not so much in the wholesaling business, where we go to reporters — but we’re very much in the retailing business.”

Duke, which is a member of Futurity, has also started doing some aggregating of its own. The university’s communications office recently opened an “opinion” page on its internal news website, Duke Today. The page pulls content from Duke professors’ blogs and Twitter feeds together and showcases them alongside the essays they have submitted to traditional publications.

Here is a snapshot of Duke Today's opinion page as of this writing. To the right: a link to a post Don Taylor, a professor of public policy and medicine at Duke, wrote for The Incidental Economist blog. To the left: a link to a more traditional op-ed about foreign policy and the GOP debates by Peter D. Feaver, a political science and public policy professor at Duke, penned for NPR. Below: the latest Twitter update from Gary Bennett, an associate professor of psychology and global health at Duke, who is lamenting the recent bankruptcy of the Friendly’s restaurant chain, where he says many of his weekend nights in high school used to end.

“It’s almost like creating a shop window,” says Jarmul. “Having things lying around the store is one thing, but when you put it all in one place it's more impressive, and hopefully more interesting as well.”

In some ways this serves the opposite purpose of Duke’s relationship with Futurity: rather than pushing self-published content from Duke researchers out to external aggregators, the opinion website takes content from Duke researchers that has been published elsewhere and curates it on an internal page. But both indicate how Duke officials are trying to adapt to changing habits in the new media landscape — by both those producing the research and those who would read it.

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.

 

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