About 100 years ago I decided to give up my job in New York, enroll at a big Midwest university, and pursue a Ph.D. in medieval English literature. I had some very good teachers in the doctoral program and a few who were not so great. But one of the things that puzzled me, now that I was up to my eyebrows in academia, was why my professors spent so much time writing articles on topics that no one cared about and that certainly didn’t advance anyone’s understanding or appreciation of Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or whoever wrote Beowulf. Worst of all, these articles were a penance to read.
I remember one faculty member who was positively schoolmarmish about one of The Canterbury Tales: In one of her articles, the great “Ah ha!” moment came when she found a misplaced in comma in the manuscript. At the time, I was in full-blown dutiful graduate student mode, so I read these ponderous, coma-inducing pieces, wondering all the while if anybody else was reading them. Now, I have my answer.
Two professors from the University of Quebec at Montreal, Vincent Lariviere and Yves Gingras, have been studying American and Canadian scholarly articles published in four fields: medicine, natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. Their goal was to learn how many of these articles were cited either in the footnotes or the bibliographies of works written by the authors’ peers. The results of their study brought good news to some professors: Lariviere and Gingras found that in a two-year period, 80 percent of published articles on medical topics, 60 percent of papers published on various disciplines of the natural sciences, and 55 percent of published pieces related to social sciences were cited in other publications. Clearly, the folks in the sciences are paying attention to each other’s work.
Alas, that is not the case in the humanities. Lariviere and Gingras’ study revealed that approximately 85 percent of articles published in journals dedicated to literature and related fields “go unnoticed and uncited.” Meanwhile, on the other side of campus, the science profs were “increasingly drawing upon the stock of published papers” to advance their own work, which might lead to new or improved treatments for Lord knows how many ailments and maybe even answer some of the questions the brainiacs wrestle with in every episode of The Big Bang Theory.
Lariviere and Gingras’ work is backed up by the STM Report, an organization that tracks the publication of articles in scholarly journals. And for the folks in the humanities, there is more bad news. Approximately 1.8 million scholarly articles are published every year. That’s a big number. And here’s another one: According to the STM Report, 900,000 of those articles have an audience of exactly two — the professor who wrote the piece, and the editor of the journal who accepted it for publication. Aaron Gordon — writing on this scary, mind-numbing data for the Pacific Standard — explained that in academia, “it’s better to publish something than nothing.” I guess. But for the folks in the faculty lounge, that’s gotta be cold comfort.
Gordon is referring, of course, to the “publish or perish” conundrum faculty at research universities must confront. In these schools, the pressure to churn out article after article in order to move forward in the profession can be fierce. It can even determine if a professor gets a better job at a nicer school. For example, when a search committee is reviewing candidates to fill a position in one of the humanities departments, it’s not unusual for the committee members to place the greatest emphasis on the number of articles an applicant has published rather than on his or her skill as a teacher. I know. It makes no sense. Especially to parents who send their kids off to a pricey university for an education, only to find that a fair number of professors who give the faculty bragging rights are lousy classroom teachers or don’t teach at all.
In the sciences, there are still lots of problems to be solved, which makes research exciting and gives it something every researcher craves — real-world applications for his or her work. Speaking only of my former field of study, English literature, I assure you that everything that can be said about Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or Milton has been said. We’re done. And in the case of some books, we never should have started — James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake springs to mind.
I don’t expect the academics will take to heart Lariviere and Gingras’ work or the results of the STRM Report. And I recognize that my humble opinion carries no weight, but I’ll offer it anyway. Call a moratorium on articles on English lit. Sure, if someone unearths a previously unknown story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that leaves “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz” in the dust, let us know about it. But if it’s another race-class-and-gender re-interpretation of Christina Rossetti’s thank-you notes, let it go. It would take the pressure off a lot of professors and free them up to head back into the classroom. Hell, some of them might even turn out to be good teachers.
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