Think Tank Credibility

After listening to a podcast with Tristan Harris (co-founder of the think tank, Centre for Humane Technology), I’ve started to take a closer look into think tanks over the past few months. Given the recent Congress Hearings with Tech leaders and upcoming elections in US (and Guernsey where I have resided since 2016), I am slightly fascinated in the role think tanks play in democracy.

As part of the research, I recently came across a brilliant article by Andrea Baertl on the topic of ‘think tank credibility’. Obviously, credibility is crucial for a think tank. To be able to effectively inform policy and practice they need to be and be seen as credible sources of information and advice.

In the current environment- where fake news, fake think tanks, bad and fake research abound- think tanks need to be trustworthy sources of information and advice to their stakeholders.

In Andrea’s article, she provides an annotated reading list of resources that address the concept of credibility and think tanks. Below, I have provided a selection of the key resources to check out for further insight into the changing role of think tanks and the challenges of the new world:

A problematic context: post-truth, bad research and clandestine lobbying

Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U. K. H.,& Cook, J. (2017, in press). Beyond Misinformation: Understanding and coping with the post-truth era. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

This article discusses the terms post- truth, fake news and misinformation. It outlines the societal trends that gave way to the current misinformation environment: a decline in social capital, growing economic inequality, increased polarisation, declining trust in science, and a fractionated media landscape. It also shows how misinformation influences people and the pervasive effects this can have. It finally discusses how people respond to corrections, showing how difficult changing people’s minds can be, and finishes with recommendations on how to combat misinformation

Leach, M. (2017Research and evidence in the ’post-truth’ era. Institute of Development Studies. Opinion.

This opinion article discusses the role of research and evidence in the current environment in which experts and facts are rejected by some groups. It argues that there is still need for research and evidence, but done differently. Research, evidence and knowledge needs to evidence how and why we need to create a fairer and more sustainable world, and how research can contribute towards that goal.

Gutbrod, H. (2017) Fake news, fake tanks, and the general election: Britain’s democracy under threat?. Transparency International Blog.

The author reflects on the impact that fake news and fake tanks can have on UK elections. He describes how fake tanks have effectively generated false news that are picked up by the main media outlets arguing that, yes, there is cause for concern. Editors and journalists often cannot tell the difference between real think tanks and fake ones (who are usually fronts for lobbyists or other powers) and gives examples of them further propagating fake news. Transparency, he argues, is a useful tool to identify if a think tank is credible or not, and that could and should be used to combat fake news and fake tanks. He finally argues that governments should not fall into the trap of more regulations, as that would stifle existing think tanks, but instead the focus should be on improving the media and ask them to fact check and refuse providing outlets to fake tanks and dark money groups.

The concept of credibility

Rieh, S. Y. & Danielson, D. R. (2007). Credibility: A multidisciplinary framework. In B. Cronin (Ed.), Annual Review of Information Science and Technology (Vol. 41, pp. 307-364). Medford, NJ: Information Today.

Rieh and Danielson discuss the concept of credibility and its relationship with trust, quality, authority and persuasion. They focus on identifying critical concepts and dimensions of credibility and the factors that influence its assessment. The focus is geared towards general communications, web design and information science, but the review of the concept they do as well as the framework proposed are very useful and a good introduction to understanding credibility.

Hilligoss, B., Rieh, S.Y., 2007. Developing a unifying framework of credibility assessment: Construct, heuristics, and interaction in context. Information Processing and Management 44 (2008) 1467–1484

Based on interviews the authors propose that there are three levels of credibility judgements: 1) Construct, which is the way a person defines or operationalized credibility, 2) Heuristics, which are the rules of thumb that people use to assess credibility in particular situations, and 3) Interaction level, which is how these two interact with the cues elicited by the source. Additionally, they propose that context frames these assessments. This is a very interesting framework and useful to understand how individuals assess credibility. The authors do a very good job of explaining to readers how assessments at every level are made and how different aspects influence credibility judgements.

Policy research, think tanks and credibility

Judis, J.B. (2017) The credible think tank is dead. New Republic.

Judis discusses the ousting of a Google critic at the New America Foundation and argues that donors have corrupted Washington’s policy and research institutes. The author traces the story of think tanks in the United States and shows how they have transformed, and concludes- in an un-optimistic tone- that a reduction of the role of money throughout American politics is needed to revive the older vision of the think tank: carrying out disinterested research.

Mendizabal, E. (2018). Is it all about credibility?. On Think Tanks Article.

This is a reflection article on different aspects that On Think Tanks has focused over the years: governance, business models, transparency, research quality, communications, etc.- and how these different issues all lead to a think tank strengthening and showcasing its credibility.

Doberstein, C. (2017). Whom Do Bureaucrats Believe? A Randomized Controlled Experiment Testing Perceptions of Credibility of Policy ResearchPolicy Studies Journal, 45: 384-405.

Highly recommended research that shows the power of heuristics when assessing the credibility of a source. Doberstein ran an experiment in which participants (government bureaucrats) were asked to read research summaries and assess their credibility, for half or respondents the affiliation/authorship of the content was randomly reassigned. The findings showed that credibility was basically assessed via heuristics and regardless of the actual piece of research: academic research is perceived to be more credible than think tank or advocacy organisation research. The author did this follow up study with similar findings: Doberstein, C. (2017) The Credibility Chasm in Policy Research from Academics, Think Tanks, and Advocacy Organizations. Canadian Public Policy, 43, 4. Both articles can be found in academia.edu and the author also published an abridged version.

Rich, A. (2004) Think tanks, public policy and the politics of expertise. Cambridge University Press, New York.

This book is an excellent introduction to understanding and studying think tanks. Regarding, credibility chapter three “Political Credibility” is highly recommended. Rich analyses the perceptions of think tanks among US congressional staff and journalists (as key actors in policymaking), their views on the influence and credibility of think tanks, and how their visibility and marketing efforts affect their influence and perceptions of credibility.

Stone, D. (2004) Private authority, scholarly legitimacy and political credibility. Think Tanks and informal diplomacy. In. Higgot, R., Underhill, G.R.D., Bieler, A. (2004) Non-State Actors and Authority in the Global System

The work of Stone on think tanks in general is highly recommended. This chapter is very interesting to understand the credibility of think tanks from a political viewpoint. The author describes how think tanks as non-state actors act as policy entrepreneurs on both domestic and international policy domains and contribute to policymaking. Despite not being fully academic actors, they operate within that world as well, which in turn lends them credibility.

Baertl, A. (2018) De-constructing credibility: factors that affect a think tank’s credibility. On Think Tanks Working Paper 4. On Think Tanks

The paper explores the concept of credibility, explaining that credibility is constructed through the interaction of characteristics and actions of an organisation, and the assessment of others in the context within which communication takes place. Stakeholders give (or take away) credibility based on their assessments of the information they have and the influence of the current context. The paper argues that the credibility of a think tank goes beyond the quality of its research, and that there are a common set of factors from which individuals draw from to assess the credibility of a think tank. These are: networks, past impact, intellectual independence, transparency, credentials and expertise, communications and visibility, research quality, ideology and values, and current context.

Ensuring credibility

The following are a selection of articles that focus on specific factors that relate to the credibility of think tanks, and give ideas on how think tanks can ensure and showcase it.

Research quality

Méndez, 2012. What’s in good? Evaluating IDRC Results: Research Excellence. IDRC

Although a little dated now- therefore missing the latest research quality frameworks (REF and RQ+)- this is an excellent overview of the literature on research quality and excellences, as well as some of its gaps. The article discusses the elusive concept of research excellence or quality and demonstrates that there are no common definitions, but several commonalities in it. This document is included in this credibility reading list because research quality is at the core of a think tank’s credibility and a needs to be reflected on before moving any further on to assess its credibility.

McLean, R. (2018)Credibility and research quality- time for a paradigm shift? On Think Tanks Article.

The author discusses the RQ+ framework of the IDRC as a way forward to measure and ensure the quality of research and lead to its credibility. The article starts by questioning impact indicators an argues that they are essentially a proxy indicator of how popular the publication is, and that they say very little about the importance of the topic, the quality of the research or their impact on policy or practice. The framework developed by the IDRC is a way to ensure all of this, which would in turn lead to credible research.

Transparency

Gutrod, H. (2018) Credibility- the role of transparency. On Think Tanks Article.

This short article reflects on the relationship of transparency and credibility, arguing that transparency does not guarantee credibility for a think tank, but it is a necessary step towards achieving it. Gutbrod says transparency can also contribute to the debate on credibility- after all, every organisation has particular interests, motivations and affiliations. The problem for the credibility of the organisation arises when these are hidden.

Bruckner, T. (2017) Think tanks, evidence and policy: democratic players or clandestine lobbyists?. LSE Impact blog

Think tanks are thought by some to conduct sound policy research aimed at enriching policy discussions, and by others as covert lobbyists financed by corporations to suit their needs. Bruckner discusses the role that transparency can (and is) playing in establishing which think tanks are legitimate and credible organisations and which are not.

Communications and credibility

Fogg, B.J. (2002). Prominence-Interpretation Theory: Explaining How People Assess Credibility. A Research Report from the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, Stanford University

Prominence-Interpretation theory proposes that in order to assess the credibility of something (in this case, websites) people first need to notice something (prominence) and then make a judgement made about it (interpretation). People only base their credibility judgements on aspects that they notice. This highlights the importance of good communications as part of a think tank’s credibility strategy.

Williams K (2018). Three strategies for attaining legitimacy in policy knowledge: Coherence in identity, process and outcome. Public Admin. 2018;1–17.

The author outlines three types of coherence that enhance the legitimacy of organisations based on an analysis and interviews to individuals from 12 development research organisations. Williams argues that the credibility of knowledge production organisations is enhaced by demonstrating a coherent identity; showing adequate processes for maintaining independence, integrity and transparency; and creating the ‘right’ products that impact on their audiences.

Schwartz, J, 2018 Credibility and think tank communications. On Think Tanks article.

Schwwartz argues that credibility is at the heart of all effective communications (as without credibility the message will not be adequately received by the source). The argument, is that to build its credibility, a think tanks needs to: be evidence based, and showcase this in its communications; be brand-conscious and build consistent arguments over time, and; be useful, working with and for their audiences, and making its ideas easy to find and use.

Westerman, D., Spence, P. R. and Van Der Heide, B. (2014), Social Media as Information Source: Recency of Updates and Credibility of Information. J Comput-Mediat Comm, 19: 171–183. doi:10.1111/jcc4.12041

This very interesting article analyses how information available on social media impacts the perceptions of credibility. Although not directly focused on think tanks, it does offer very interesting lessons for them. The findings showed that recency of tweets positively impacts the credibility of the source, although this process is not automatic and is mediated by cognitive elaboration.

Newman, E. J., & Schwarz, N. (in press). Good sound, Good Research: How the audio quality of talks and interviews influences perceptions of the researcher and the research. Science Communication

Although the focus of this research is not think tanks per se, the implications of the findings are important for think tank communications. The authors ran an experiment in which they presented identical conference talks in high and low audio quality and asked people to evaluate the piece. People evaluated the research and researcher less favourably when they were presented with the poor audio quality audio. This has important implications for think tank communications, as efforts in curating the quality of their pieces will have larger implications in how their audiences perceive them.

Flanagin & Metzger 2017. Digital media and perceptions of source credibility in political Communication. In Kathleen, K.K & Jamieson, H. (2017) The Oxford Handbook of Political Communication. Oxford University Press

The authors compare the credibility of digital versus traditional channels, and the dynamics and nature of political information online. They also reflect on the following aspects: the link between credibility and selective exposure, the potential for group polarisation, and the role of social media in seeking and delivering credible political information. They analyse these issues and offer challenges and opportunities that can be used by think tanks to better engage with the public.

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