Facebook and grades revisited aka peer-reviewed publication at record speed

by Eszter Hargittai on May 6, 2009

Facebook thread illustrationFollowing up on my blog post from a few weeks ago, a couple of colleagues and I have published a formal response to the media frenzy covering the study that claimed a relationship between Facebook use and lower grades.

Back when the story broke about Aryn Karpinski’s research, most media outlets ran with the claims made in the original press release or even took it to a next step by suggesting a causal relationship between Facebook use and lower grades. Only a few outlets took care in reporting, among them the Chronicle of Higher Education. In the last few days, the BBC has had a piece considering the various perspectives.

By the way, this is the quickest turn-around I’ve ever experienced with an academic publication. Below the fold is a bit more describing how it came about.

On Sunday, April 16th I went to bed realizing that a story would likely spread like crazy the next day as it claimed a negative relationship between Facebook use and academic achievement. I looked up what I could about it and was concerned as it didn’t seem like the study offered solid evidence of the claims, but it was precisely the type of piece the media love.

By the time I woke up on Monday, April 17th, people among my Facebook contacts had started posting the story.

At 7:55am ET I tweeted the following:
Based on my UIC data set (representative sample of 1K+): no correlation b/w any Facebook use or # of hrs of SNS use & students’ grades, fyi.

Siva Vaidhyanathan responded soon after (at 8:18am to be precise) with this tweet:
@eszter will you blog prelim results of sns/grade correlation?

I would have preferred not to, mainly because it was the first day in a long time that I had a full day for my own work. But throughout the day, an increasing number of media outlets (first in the UK then in the US and elsewhere) picked up the story. Following all that media coverage were people’s tweets plus blog and Facebook posts about the study.

I decided I should blog about it after all and posted an entry here a few hours later. There is only so much you can say in 140 characters allowed on Twitter, after all, and I decided this was worth more elaboration.

Soon after, my blog post was automatically reposted on my Facebook Wall. My contacts started commenting on it including Josh Pasek who noted that his data also did not suggest the purported relationship between Facebook use and grades (see Facebook snippet above).

Twenty minutes after posting on my Facebook Wall, Josh sent me an email asking whether I was interested in “working on a report” about all this. I said I’d be up for working on something more formal.

Josh brought on eian more from the University of Pennsylvania, we had a conference call a few hours later and Josh started writing the first draft of the paper. Dozens of emails and about ten drafts later, we sent the paper off for consideration and peer-review to First Monday. A few days later it was accepted and a few days after that, it was published.

Many thanks go to the editor of First Monday, Ed Valauskas, and the reviewers for recognizing that a quick turnaround here would be helpful.

Regarding the image above, note that Josh’s comment is the authentic one with the original time stamp while eian’s is one we added later for the illustration.



dsquared 05.06.09 at 10:05 pm

Gosh that’s pretty cool. Do you see this as the way of the future, though, or was it a one-off? I’d be a bit worried that there was a danger of having one’s research agenda set by the morning papers, and that your original reaction of irritation at losing a day you’d set aside for your own work was the correct one. I suppose the thick dividing line is that you got it in a peer-reviewed journal which sort of ex post validates the decision to do the work.


Amanda French 05.06.09 at 11:16 pm

Agree with dsquared that it’s a bit of an issue, whether scholars should need to respond to agendas (agendae?!?) set by the media — but on the whole, I think it’s just marvelous that you all were able to do this. It’s a shame that bad information gets spread so quickly, and annoying to have to respond to it, but it’d be worse not to. It’s imperative, then, that we have quick-turnaround online journals such as First Monday.

The news cycle is now so fast that a scholarly publishing cycle of a few weeks looks luxurious by comparison. Plenty of time for rational, thorough response.


Eszter Hargittai 05.06.09 at 11:34 pm

This was a very intense experience, super fun, but not something I’d want to be doing on a daily basis especially since I did it while doing everything else that was already on my plate.

Writing it all up formally and sending it to a peer-reviewed journal was the only condition under which I was going to continue doing any work on this though so that was part of it when I received the email from Josh asking whether I wanted to work on it together. And no, I don’t think one’s research agenda should be set in this way, but I was *so* frustrated by the incident that I probably would’ve wasted head space on it regardless and in that case, might as well write it all up formally then. Plus it is related to things I think about so it wasn’t completely off-topic for me.


John Quiggin 05.06.09 at 11:50 pm

In this context, the financial crisis is quite a striking example. Academic economists are probably playing a bigger role in the public debate than they have in recent times, through blogs in particular, but the standard institutions of the profession (journals, conferences and so on) have been almost entirely irrelevant. My own professional life is split between a news cycle

And with luck, the fact that the debate has moved so fast may have produced a policy response that’s more timely and appropriate than in the past, even if far from ideal.


rea 05.07.09 at 1:25 pm

Any negative correlation between Facebook use and academic achievement would run into a major “post hoc ergo propter hoc” problem, anyway.


Kevin R. Guidry 05.08.09 at 5:08 pm

@dsquared I understand your concern but it seems that is also room for scholars to engage with the public and address topical issues. I think that we often err way too far on the side of remaining too cocooned within our cozy academic comfy chairs and not engaging the public. Much of the distrust (as embodied within the rhetoric of the accountability movements) of academia can likely be traced back to this lack of engagement.

While we can agree that much of the media got this story wrong (query: Is this happening in increasing frequency as pre-publications, conference papers, and other “not-ready-for-primetime” documents are made more widely available?) surely the discussions that followed were worthwhile, interesting, and contributed to the body of knowledge.


Eszter Hargittai 05.08.09 at 5:32 pm

Kevin, my main problem with “the discussions that followed” is that most of them haven’t been particularly sophisticated. Take, for example, the author of the original study. Aryn Karpinski keeps repeating that she only claimed correlation not causation, but our point is that based on the data she has, even that’s problematic. She has yet to address any of the critiques we raised about her methods and I suspect most people don’t look closely enough to appreciate how significant some of the limitations of her study are.


Gary 05.08.09 at 9:10 pm

Eszter, I guess that, perhaps like a couple above, I am having a hard time understanding this episode. In short – and I’m sure this might be taken as snarky, but here goes – why does it matter whether Facebook use is or is not associated with grades? If this was simply a matter of correcting the record – something got blown up in the media that you knew to be incorrect – OK. It is infuriating how frequently this happens. Your response is convincing. But the breathless, hold-the-phone-drop-everything account above leaves one with the sense that research in question violated some deep commitment that you have. So, again, is there some reason why we should be concerned about Facebook and the association of Facebook use with GPA?


Kevin R. Guidry 05.08.09 at 11:12 pm

Eszter, I agree that much of the discussion has not been very sophisticated. With all due respect, I don’t think that much of the research has been very sophisticated either. Your 2007 JCMC article is one of the few to which I can (and regularly do) point and say, “Look, we’re advancing!” What do we expect when so much of the research is done using surveys of convenience samples using instruments that are unchecked for validity and reliability and deployed by persons who aren’t really knowledgeable of their sample or the environment in which the research is being conducted? (That last part is my “Damnit, higher ed scholars, get more involved!” plea.)

I am also very concerned that so much energy has been expended by established scholars attacking a poster session put together by a grad student. It doesn’t seem to be a very welcoming environment when so many well-established voices come down so hard on someone who never intended to enter the fray but got caught up events beyond her reckoning and experience. It’s particularly galling when so much of the published research is just as bad as this poster session but many of us have been content to keep quiet until now when we can all pile on one of our youngest and most vulnerable colleagues. The vehemence with which some of this has occurred is very off-putting and the hypocrisy is particularly troubling.

Eszter, please don’t take my comments personally; they’re not aimed at just you but at nearly everyone as this discussion has taken place in many different venues and with many different participants. You can have your soapbox back now and thank you for letting me borrow it. :)


Eszter Hargittai 05.09.09 at 1:59 am

Gary, there are all sorts of reasons why one would follow up in this case such as wanting to encourage sound research and also to avoid people taking away wrong conclusions. In this particular case, given all the concerns and unknowns about digital media uses and services like Facebook, schools or parents may decide to implement rules that restrict usage. Does that matter? It might if it turns out that these can be helpful tools.

Kevin, please go back and read my original blog post and our article. My original blog post was very careful in not accusing the author and mainly wondering if the media misinterpreted/misquoted things. In the paper, we critique the study, but also very much focus on the media’s reactions. We make no personal attacks.

Just to be clear – a reporter I spoke to thought we had run out and collected all these data in the last two weeks so it may be worth clarifying – we didn’t go out and create new projects around this study. These were data sets we had ready to go with the relevant measures and so we ran some analyses and decided to write them up to offer some evidence based on data that are better suited to answer the questions raised by the original study.


Sandy 05.09.09 at 2:46 am

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