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Most Western academics today are using their intellectual capital to answer questions that nobody’s asking on pages that nobody’s reading…

daniel lattier professorProfessors usually spend about three-six months (sometimes longer) researching and writing in order to submit a twenty-five-page article to an academic journal. And most experience a twinge of excitement when, months later, they open a letter informing them that their article has been accepted for publication, and will therefore be read by…

… an average of ten people.

Yes, you read that correctly. The numbers reported by recent studies are pretty bleak:

  • Eighty-two percent of articles published in the humanities are not even cited once.
  • Of those articles that are cited, only twenty percent have actually been read.
  • Half of academic papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, peer reviewers, and journal editors.

So what’s the reason for this madness? Why does the world continue to be subjected to just fewer than two million academic journal articles each year?

Well, the main reason is money and job-security. The goal of all professors is to get tenure, and right now, tenure continues to be awarded based in part on how many peer-reviewed publications they have. Tenure committees treat these publications as evidence that the professor is able to conduct mature research.

Sadly, however, many academic articles today are merely exercises in what one professor I knew called “creative plagiarism”: rearrangements of previous research with a new thesis appended to them.

Another reason is increased specialization in the modern era, which is in part due to the splitting up of universities into various disciplines and departments that each pursue their own logic.

One unfortunate effect of this specialization is that the subject matter of most articles make them inaccessible to the public, and even to the overwhelming majority of professors. (Trust me: Most academics do not even want to read their peers’ papers.) Some of the titles in the most recent issues of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion—which proclaims itself as “the top academic journal in the field of religious studies”—serve as evidence:

  • “Dona Benta’s Rosary: Managing Ambiguity in a Brazilian Women’s Prayer Group”
  • “Death and Demonization of a Bodhisattva: Guanyin’s Reformulation within Chinese Religion”
  • “Brides and Blemishes: Queering Women’s Disability in Rabbinic Marriage Law”

Thus, increased specialization has led to increased alienation not only between professors and the general public, but also among the professors themselves.

All of this is very unfortunate. Ideally, the great academic minds of a society should be put to work for the sake of building up that society and addressing its problems. Instead, most Western academics today are using their intellectual capital to answer questions that nobody’s asking, on pages that nobody’s reading.

What a waste.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Intellectual Takeout (October 2016).

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18 replies to this post
  1. I would posit that at least in the US, professors are writing because they are required to produce “stuff” by the colleges/universities at a rapid rate. I was recently denied a grant where I teach because my publication trail was not as “rich” as others – when pressed the VP for Research said it wasn’t as big. To attack problems of import and value requires time and reflection as well as materials. The timed element doesn’t fit well with expectations.

  2. Lewis: The other evil (in my view) is the incubus of “Research.”  The system was, I believe, first devised to attract the Americans and to emulate the scientists.  But the wisest Americans are themselves already sick of it; as one of them said to me, ‘I guess we got to come to giving every citizen a Ph. D. shortly after birth, same as baptism and vaccination.’

              And it is surely clear by now that the needs of the humanities are different than those of the sciences.  In science, I gather, a young student fresh from his First in the Tripos can really share in the work of one of his seniors in a way that is useful to himself and even the subject.  But this is not true of the man who has just got his First in English or Modern Languages.  Such a man, far from being able or anxious (he is by definition no fool) to add to the sum of human knowledge, wants to acquire a good deal more of the knowledge we already have.  He has lately begun to discover how many more things he needs to know in order to follow up his budding interests; that he needs economics, or theology, or philosophy, or archeology (and always a few more languages).  To head him off from these studies, to pinfold him in some small inquiry whose chief claim is that no one has ever made it before, is cruel and frustrating.  It wastes such years as he will never have again; for an old proverb says that ‘All the speed is in the morning.'”

  3. I am minded of the joke (or was it) about the man who knew more and more about less and less until he know everything about nothing.
    Contrast this form of madness with the “Great Books”, which are classed as “middlebrow” because they can be read by *anyone*.

  4. Many academic papers go unread because they’re unreadable. I remember doing research for my Master’s thesis. More than half the articles on my research area were unintelligible. Only a narrow sliver of the populous could understand the field specific language and the tortured sentence structures.

  5. A worthwhile article and worthwhile comments. The reason for the appearance of all this stuff may be that the publishers want to keep their periodicals appearing regularly–and keep their jobs.

  6. Problem was summarized to me by a professor who joked:

    “The Dean cannot read, but he can count.”

    Meaning, the important thing was (1) the number of articles published, and especially (2), the amount of grant money brought in. Research quality?, not so much.

    We would have better teaching in our universities, and better research too, if academics were expected to produce maybe 1 to 3 publications over the course of their careers, as opposed to that many every year.

  7. In spite of the professor’s wonderful joke, Wilfred seems not to accept the premise that the quality of teaching should be the only requirement for teachers. Teaching is what the schools are supposed to exist for. If they want productive scholars on board, they could pay them salaries, but keep them out of the classrooms. To the extent that they’re economy-minded, they could certainly find other uses for them.

  8. This was the case many years ago, and probably the main reason I did not ever want to pursue a career in academia. I would have loved to have taught history, but was unwilling to engage in what passes for writing in the academy. Law school was even worse–I doubt there is anything that rivals a law review article for opacity or irrelevance.

  9. This article reflects a lack of appreciation for the positive goods produced by academic research, which are easier to see with a longer perspective. Obviously specialized research is not the most useful writing for the greatest number of people alive at one moment—it was never intended to be so. The Enlightenment, for all its faults, had this right: the view that its goals would take generations of consistently applied principles, and the faith in the goodness of those goals to continue to build them up, even if that means only making a few bricks in your lifetime for a single edifice, and knowing that of that edifice there will someday be not one stone left lying on another…and knowing that this is ok. Sic transit gloria mundi. But we’re made for work.

  10. If the author’s aim was to demonstrate the poor quality of a large percentage of academic research these days, that’s an argument to be made, for sure. But I think he stretches his thesis a bit too far in such a short space.

    Why should academics be forced to focus only on topics of immediate interest to some sphere of society? Why should academics be “put to work” for everyone else–are they some sort of slave for the rest of society? Why should academic articles be accessible to everyone in the general public? What academic has 3-6 months at their disposal to focusing on writing only a single paper that is accepted so easily?

    Is this basically what’s being said: “Here’re are some smart people: let’s pay them very little to do all the thinking for us because we don’t want to do it ourselves or hire people into our organizations–oh, and they better make it so simple that even a 5-year-old could understand it?”

    Why don’t we put to work the CEOs making top dollar? Why not the politicians who are (seemingly) only in it for themselves?

    Does is not happen all too often in the natural sciences and engineering fields, where government and industry pay the lowest bidder, in effect, to solve the problems they are unwilling to pay big bucks to think for themselves? Is not basic fundamental research being pushed aside? More than that, why is such research treated as meaningless, even though the really fundamental stuff is critical if any true advancement of those fields into society is to occur?

    In the humanities and social sciences perhaps the story is different. But, all the same, why are we pushing academics into only being “useful” if they solve problems that are rightly dealt with within their proper spheres elsewhere? Should not the academics be allowed to think, and the practitioners allowed to practice?

    Academics have to constantly publish, edit, research and stay up-to-date, review articles, teach and grade, write proposals, network, go to conferences, advise and supervise, design classes and programs, obtain (re)accreditations, interview, consult, and work on various other university committees–that is, do much more than what they had to do 100 years ago. How are they expected to have time to sit down to take the time it really takes to do thorough research and read and dissect every line of every potentially relevant paper?

    As regards citations: are there not already metrics for such, to make sure that we don’t just look at how much people are producing, but having some way to asses the quality thereof? There should certainly be far fewer academic journals, each requiring more rigorous research, and research that is truly relevant to their respective fields. I agree and see where the author is coming from as regards “creative plagiarism.” But isn’t this a result of the cut-throat hurried mentality of academic publishing based on the need to attract limited funding for the increasingly populated (though comparatively miniscule) world of academia?

    Should we not all–in every sphere of society–aim to be more patient, focused, diligent, and rigorous with our work, rather than making ourselves work so much overtime and destroy family and community life to churn out garbage for the sake of some utopian consumerist technocratic dream, to meet the bottom-dollar? Can we regain the ability to see that a job well done–in academia or elsewhere–should be defined as something that takes a lot of time and a lot of thought and a lot of sacrifice, and doesn’t just make $$$ and increase our personal happy feelings?

  11. Mr. Lattier, When one writes a paper of the type you list above, one spends a good deal of time and effort to attain the final product. No matter how strange, irrelevant or just plain weird the writing and conclusion is, that person will have an innate desire to have that effort heard due to the hard work expended. If that is the case, their only outlet is to teach that strange, irrelevant and just plain weird information to their students once they attain a teaching position. So you are mistaken that they are not using their talents to build up society. They are building up society. It just so happens that they are building society that is strange, irrelevant and just plain weird.

  12. this short story should be investigated. I am a scientist who has published quite a bit in the sciences (chemistry/biochemistry) and I think its a bit higher than some of the humanities numbers you cite, but I think there is real food for thought in your commentary. I really think someone should investigate this and break it down by discipline…then publish it.

  13. When I went to graduate school, I was disappointed. I thought graduate school was about gaining deeper knowledge. I was wrong.

    The coursework in public administration was designed to teach us all about how we were better and smarter than others. The coursework in statistics and constitutional law was invigorating — but all those courses were senior level courses. The courses in change management were fascinating, but not all that different from what you could read in good business magazines.

    The exception was a course I took twice (from the same professor) two years apart in urban geography, which I had presumed would be about how cities end up where they are and how they take advantage of their geography. The professor’s lectures were incomprehensible, filled with unfamiliar jargon. There was no textbook, but rather photocopied articles written in the same incomprehensible gibberish. I never made it past the fourth week either time, and both times thought it was my fault. With age and experience, I realize that the subject matter was purposely obscure and jargon-filled, designed to be consumed only by those who had prepared for it by learning the jargon as undergraduates. The course was not designed to pass on on knowledge, but to create a priesthood who knew the magic words and could pronounce the incantations and impress the masses with their wisdom and profundity.

    I learned these truths as I stumbled on learned journal articles in subjects I was familiar with outside of school and discovered that the majority of these articles were filled with verbiage and profundity but said little or nothing. I was a journalism major as an undergrad, and one of the vital lessons was to write so an eighth grader could understand. With rare exceptions (the physical sciences come to mind), I have found that writing written to be understood by those with less than a college education (but still well educated), is the most informative — because it reaches people at a level they can readily comprehend. Most scholarly journal articles are not written to be read; they are written, like essay question answers on an exam, to impress. There is a reason no one but the teacher reads essay question answers and it is the same reason no one really reads journal articles — too many have nothing to say and instead fill the space by baffling with verbiage (to use a polite term).

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