Richard Phelps writes for the Martin Center about a little-known practice that prevents some academic research from reaching the public.

The public relies on journalists to learn about and share academic research. Public knowledge can be undermined, however, when academics try to influence what research journalists cover or limit the “acceptable debate” about an issue.

This influence can be achieved through “citation cartels,” where sympathetic researchers cite and reference one another and ignore or dismiss the high-quality research of others that reach different conclusions. Citation cartels belittle research they disagree with, rather than refute it.

Citation cartels can advance researchers’ careers substantially: Cartel members receive more media exposure and get more academic citations. Universities consider citation numbers as evidence of research productivity and influence, which affects hiring and promotion decisions. …

… The time constraints faced by journalists mean they can’t do their own review of the relevant research; it can take years to really know a research literature. So, journalists must rely on experts in the field. When recommending other sources, strategic scholars will identify someone within the cartel, regardless of their expertise in the topic. When recommending other research, they will mention only that conducted within their cartel.

The consequence of journalistic reliance on citation cartels is obvious—a misinformed public. When journalists repeat a dismissive review, they further the interest of the cartel, not the public.