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In Defense of Research

Guest post by Stephen J. Mexal, Assistant Professor of English, Cal State-Fullerton

Mark Bauerlein has generously offered me the opportunity to respond to his comments regarding my recent defense of so-called “over-productivity” in academic research.

There have been a number of recent writers and academics claiming there’s simply too much scholarship these days: an “avalanche of low-quality research” wasting resources and obscuring valuable scholarship.  I suggested, however, that quantity doesn’t need to be the enemy of quality.  An abundance of research generally can lead to a gain in high-quality research specifically.

It’s worth noting that humanities research is often the unacknowledged target of these sorts of debates.  “People shouldn’t rush things into print before their time,” Bauerlein cautions.  By “people,” he obviously doesn’t mean “people who have made life-saving medical breakthroughs”; he means “people with clever things to say about deontological ethics.”  The fruits of humanities research are often assumed to be simply less essential than the knowledge produced by other fields.  Because of this, Bauerlein seems to say, humanities research should be undertaken with genteel deliberation.  Not as an urgent contribution to knowledge, but as a sort of eccentric and vaguely embarrassing hobby, like horology, or aerophilately.

If there is an epidemic of overproduction, one of its symptoms is an overflow of quality research.  Bauerlein thinks that overproduction has made it so that scholarly “cream can’t rise to the top.”  But an excess of excellent scholarship is a good problem to have.  How would we arbitrate such a problem even if we wanted to?  Who would be the one to tell researchers, “This is a valuable contribution to your field, but sorry, we’ve simply had too much knowledge this year.  Don’t rush this into print.  Wait your turn.”

Besides, the mechanism for distinguishing between low- and high-quality research already exists.  It’s called peer review.  Bauerlein worries that the peer review process will not be able to “sustain academic rigor” if it has to evaluate too much.  But a larger community of active scholars means a stronger, more democratic community of “peers” to perform the valuable work of peer review.  More researchers should lead to better peer review, not worse.

Of course, what Bauerlein is really concerned about is quality.  A scholar that rushes things into print is producing, he thinks, “a weak monograph that would have made a great research article.”  But this presumes a single standard for what constitutes a great monograph.  When we’re talking about quality, it’s important that we don’t universalize our own narrow interests.  Publications are large; it’s okay for them to contain multitudes.  We all extract different value from the same piece of published scholarship.  For any given monograph, one person’s “weak chapter” is another person’s “most useful part of the book.”

Bauerlein is right, though, to stress the multiple costs of research.  He is wary of both the financial cost of research as well as of the labor and time that goes into producing scholarship that is low quality, or is “never looked at.”  Research is expensive.  But the reason it’s expensive is because quantity is expensive, and quality comes from quantity.  Useful pharmaceutical drugs are expensive not because of their per-unit production costs, which are a few cents at most, but because of their research costs, which can top a billion dollars.  These research costs, in turn, are high precisely because dead ends, false leads, “low-quality” work and flat-out errors are all part of the knowledge production process, and those things all cost money.  Research units deemed comparatively “low-quality” are not flaws in the knowledge-production enterprise; they’re features of it.  They are an ineradicable, and indeed desirable, component of the cost of research.

But the real problem lies not in sifting through low-quality research, but rather in keeping up with a happy excess of comparatively high-quality work.  This is one of the most understandable points in Bauerlein’s critique.  It is less that there’s too much low-quality research, and more that there’s too much good research.  He writes that many works in his field are “superb examples” of scholarship and yet ultimately “go unappreciated.”  But going underappreciated isn’t exactly the same thing as not making a contribution.  After all, Bauerlein’s “superb examples” of underappreciated research contributed to his thinking.  They weren’t unappreciated by him.  And it’s not difficult to suppose that others read, made use of, and appreciated those works of scholarship, too.

Ultimately, it’s a pretty simple equation: The more studies we do, the more we increase the likelihood of high-quality, useful studies.  Sure, those publications may not be as fully appreciated as their authors would like, but what publications are?  If we encourage scholars to decrease the pace of research and publication, then we will also decrease the total amount of excellent research.  If we want to encourage quality, we should find a way of embracing quantity.

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