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The Pluses and Minuses of Academic Research

Stephen J. Mexal’s defense of academic research against people who argue that academics publish too much is spirited and entertaining, even the sarcastic parts.  He aims to refute people like me who claim that over-productivity is damaging the fields, particularly the humanities.

The argument comes down to an assertion of the benefits of quantity.  Even if most of the research that appears is transient or trivial or incompetent, he maintains, that is no reason to alter the system as a whole.  As Mexal asserts, “quantity doesn’t need to be the enemy of quality.”  Citing a 19th-century librarian, he asserts that more material increases the chances that helpful, worthwhile cases will emerge.  Citing Vannevar Bush’s 1945 report on scientific research, Mexal asserts that “we cannot know in advance what lines of research will be of enduring value.”  We can only make that discrimination after the fact, and more quantity helps us do so.  Finally, he cites an early-20th-century Italian sociologist who derived a principle that states, “Roughly 80 percent of the effects of any given event come from 20 percent of its causes”—once again, a claim that hails the value of quantity while accepting a large rate of ephemera.

These are interesting ideas and sources, but, in truth, they don’t really apply to the problems I and others have raised here and here and here.  The problems with the current system are not one of principle, but of practice and consequence.  Yes, we may agree in the abstract with an 80/20 rule, but when we get down to the specific circumstances of academic policy and procedure, abstractions don’t provide much guidance.

Here are a few of those circumstances not mentioned by Mexal.

  • One, the peer review process.  Peer review is a delicate procedure, vulnerable to pressures ranging from cronyism to funding to laziness.  It cannot sustain academic rigor if the pile-up of works needing to be read and evaluated grows too large.
  • Two, the pace of publication, not simply the act of research.  Those of us worrying about over-productivity don’t argue that people shouldn’t do so much research.  They argue that people shouldn’t rush things into print before their time.  In my field of English, the publication schedule pushes scholars to get books out in time for tenure and promotion.  The result is a weak monograph that would have made a great research article.  Scholars should slow down, not stop.
  • Three, the labor and time that go into the making of research items; or rather, the opportunity costs of all those months and years producing scholarship that goes into the library and is never looked at again.
  • Four, the financial cost of research.
  • And finally, this conundrum: Many works in my field that I’ve examined recently are superb examples of literary scholarship.  They are wide-ranging, learned, and closely argued, and they cover central authors and issues in the field.  And yet, they, too, go unappreciated in subsequent years.

The last point is a disturbing one.  It says that quality does not ensure recognition.  One reason, I would say, is that the volume of scholarship in literary studies has become so heavy that the cream can’t rise to the top.  The discrimination of superior from inferior takes too much effort.

In that regard, quantity is, indeed, the enemy of quality.

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