October 29, 2016

"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 under 2 million academic journal articles each year?"

Asks Daniel Lattier in "Academics Write Rubbish Nobody Reads." I believe him that few academic articles are read and that they are written for the sake of the writer's resume. But that doesn't make them "rubbish." The process of writing develops the mind, and any given academic with his mind duly developed has a shot at benefiting colleagues and students who never read a word of it. And more importantly, there's something else, something that's the flip side of a negative point Lattier makes.
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.
Oh, I don't think we really want to put academics to work building up society and addressing its problems. It might be a very good thing to contain these academic types in a place where they won't do too much damage. It may be that we have marginalized these very intelligent people who live deeply in their own minds and conjure up new ideas because it's best to keep them separated and deactivated.

No one forces anyone to go into academics, and the people who go there may know — on some level — that they don't belong in the world of business and politics, that they shouldn't have their hands directly on any levers of power. The academy is a structural safeguard. We don't lock these people up. We give them a place they can choose to go, where they will be comfortable. Don't worry too much about the waste in not using them more... not until you've calculated the waste they would cause if set free to solve our problems.

67 comments:

Ken B said...

Oh dear lord. https://twitter.com/realpeerreview This develops the mind? The autoethonography of masturbation?

Did you notice he excluded science, law, mathematics, agronomy, engineering?

Ken B said...

' The problematic reactions to infantile osculation by lovely men exposes the use of sexual assault to enforce heteronormative stereotypes in weblogs. This author recounts her reaction while dismissing as patriarchal descriptions of feminist autoethnography as "waste", thereby valorizing the phallus which is not wiped with "waste paper". '

Owen said...

"It might be a very good thing to contain these academic types in a place where they won't do too much damage."

You owe me a new keyboard.

traditionalguy said...

I have an idea. All Phds need to survive Dan Gable's Four Week Intensive Wrestling Camp before they are issued their Regalia. Reality Training.

Owen said...

traditionally: "All Phds need to survive Dan Gable's Four Week Intensive Wrestling Camp before they are issued their Regalia. Reality Training."

I am not familiar with details of the Dan Gable program but it sounds about right. My own version would be to fly them over the MacKenzie River delta in a C-17 and throw them off the ramp with a parachute, a knife and a box of matches. Whoever made it to an outpost within a year would be given a diploma and allowed to offer lectures.

Birkel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Some papers are useful, but most are gibberish. And the politics... man, they suck.

I recall back in law school, fellow came to me and wanted to co-write an article. We had been promised publication in I think it was Stanford Law review, as part of a symposium. There were supposed to be like 6 articles on one side of the homosexual issue, and 6 or so on the other.

So we wrote the article; and submitted it. Turns out, it was a bait and switch. Stanford published all the Pro-homosexual articles, and the anti-homosexual ones were all tossed. They ended up in a special issue of Regent Law review, so I did get published, but that disgusting display of hypocrisy and deceit on the part of Stanford Law Review pretty well solidified my mind against anything leftist.

I suspect I'm not the only one.

--Vance

chuck said...

I'd agree with you if college wasn't a modern day job requirement. And the amount of rubbish also makes the good stuff harder to find.

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

A dear college classmate friend of mine is a soon-to-retire professor of physical geography at the University of Calgary. Last year she was brought into the Royal Society of Canada, even though she had published only three papers in her long career. What happened is that as her *students* began to be elected to the RSC they all kept referring back to her as the fountain of their success as researchers. That's what good *teaching* can do, and I am happy to see it recognized.

In forty-some years of teaching she has never set single multiple-choice exam, and only published papers which "I think actually might matter."

buwaya puti said...

I think there are an awful lot of possibly decent high school teachers wasting their time in universities.

And the women should be married and raising babies.

There is no reason to waste these people; in the past they were useful.

madAsHell said...

A study has shown.......

Birkel said...

Senator Jesse Helms said the same thing about UNC-CH. Phrased differently.

Achilles said...

I think if they can go out and find someone who will willingly give them money to write this garbage they can do it.

But we should not have to subsidize it.

Sebastian said...

"It may be that we have marginalized these very intelligent people who live deeply in their own minds and conjure up new ideas because it's best to keep them separated and deactivated." What do you mean? They aren't separated and deactivated. They teach hundreds of thousands of students every year.

sean said...

There is something in what Prof. Althouse says, but our current system is a very expensive and wasteful way of neutralizing a set of bad, dangerous people. Wouldn't it make more sense, rather than continuing to turn college into an unaffordable luxury enjoyed only by the very rich, which intensifies income inequality, to require professors to teach a little more and publish a lot less?

LYNNDH said...

Unfortunately, one got off the "academy" and wrote ObamaCare. That is one great reason to keep them bottled up.

khesanh0802 said...

@Ann: Astute analysis of academia. Thank you, Ann!

Owen said...

The alternative to my C-17 Survivor program would be a cage match between one tenure-track faculty member and one sub-assistant dean of Diversity and Inclusion. Whoever came out would be given tenure and first refusal over the disposal of the adversary's bones.

Less hyperbolically, look at the ratio of teachers to "administrators" (especially "compliance" and marketing) in today's campus. This is no longer the business you thought it was.

Quaestor said...

I believe him that few academic articles are read and that they are written for the sake of the writer's resume. But that doesn't make them "rubbish."

They're rubbish for being poorly written, and in the case of most papers written in the realm of Liberal Arts, poorly argued.

Endodontists should trash Time, Forbes, and Good Housekeeping in their waiting rooms and replace them with a few of the MLA journals. The agony of reading a paper published in Profession will make the imminent root canal painless by comparison.

rhhardin said...

I read papers that reference me. That's probably pretty common.

A form of subspecialization.

Heatshield said...

Given that their work has no perceptible value to the outside world, they should be paid an awful lot less. Or perhaps they could actually get their hands dirty and teach a class rather than delegating that to severely underpaid TA's.

Big Mike said...

Hell, half of that half aren't even read by all the reviewers.

wholelottasplainin' said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Quaestor said...

Everybody in the Modern Language Association is a frustrated writer. It's why they're there. They all think that if they just hang out at the university long enough their miserable, humorless, dry as a stick style will magically heal itself, and they'll publish that bestseller novel or Tony-winning play. Of course if one hangs around a university long enough one of two things will happen: 1) The hanger-on will become a college town entrepreneur, owning a pizza carryout franchise or a microbrewery, thus giving up on the hopeless hope of ever defeating his permanent writer's block. 2) The hanger-on will eventually join the faculty, and will get his revenge on the rest of us by writing gibberish and getting published nevertheless.

wholelottasplainin' said...

Noted epistomological adventurer "Inspector No. 3" gave me some fine advice years ago, by inserting a Chinese fortune cookie-sized slip into the pocket of a new shirt I bought, printed with:

THINK like a man of action.
ACT like a man of thought.

Today's leftist ideologues/academics don't "act", except to push ideas that have failed again and again.

With them, it's sterile dogma....all the way down.

Amexpat said...

The academy is a structural safeguard. We don't lock these people up. We give them a place they can choose to go, where they will be comfortable.

Fine, as long as it's not done on the tax payers dime.

rhhardin said...

CNN emailed me and wants the old Trump interviews on Imus audio. I said sure.

They will find Trump liked Hillary.

They'll send a list of files they want, I guess.

Helping the enemy is good for the character.

John said...

I'm surprised that peer reviewers even read that many of them. They are supposed to, sure. But do they?

there is so much fraud in the peer reviewed journal industry that it is almost impossible to believe.

Start with this article about Jon Hendrik Schoen and keep going. At one point he was publishing a peer reviewed article, in scientific journals, every 8 days:

In 2001 he was listed as an author on an average of one newly published research paper every eight days.[3] In that year he announced in Nature that he had produced a transistor on the molecular scale. Schön claimed to have used a thin layer of organic dye molecules to assemble an electric circuit that, when acted on by an electric current, behaved as a transistor. The implications of his work were significant. It would have been the beginning of a move away from silicon-based electronics and towards organic electronics. It would have allowed chips to continue shrinking past the point at which silicon breaks down, and therefore continue Moore's Law for much longer than is currently predicted. It also would have drastically reduced the cost of electronics.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sch%C3%B6n_scandal

Yes, I have published peer reviewed technical articles (3) I've also published between 50 and 200 (depending on how you count them) mostly paid articles in trade journals and other venues as well as a textbook used as UW and a number of other schools in the US and abroad. Also several other books.

My editors are always much tougher than the peer reviewers.

John Henry

William said...

There's that scene in Huckleberry Finn where half the townspeople pay good money to see a total fraud of a show. They don't tell the other half of the fraud because, since they got gypped, they think that it's only fair the other townspeople also get gypped the following night.......Since the validating people wasted their lives researching concordances to obscure medieval poets or some such crap, they think it only fair that the following generations do likewise. You can always find a better path or a shortcut to success, but nothing builds character more than being lost in the wasteland and finding something significant in the utter futility of your life. That's what really proves your mettle.

John said...

Bart,

Is the Royal Society of Canada like the Royal Society for the Arts and Manufactures of England? I'm a fellow there.

It always reminds me of the Groucho Marx line. Does look good on the business card and CV, though.

John Henry

chuck said...

But we should not have to subsidize it

I think of universities as monasteries and every night pray for the reincarnation of Henry VIII.

Gabriel said...

I can only speak of my own experience in my own discipline (physics) but the thing is you don't know what you need to know until you need to know it, and sometimes not even then. And if someone has already found it out, then it's there.

The practical applications of physical theories sometimes take decades to develop, but they'd not develop if they were not first thought of.

As Benjamin Franklin said, when asked what could possibly be the use of the Montgolfier's balloon, "Of what practical use is a newborn baby?"

Franklin's electrical discoveries certainly had no practical use for nearly a century afterward.

Quaestor said...

Don't worry too much about the waste in not using them more... not until you've calculated the waste they would cause if set free to solve our problems.

How about the litter problem? An orange bag and a stick with a nail in it aren't too wasteful of the public treasury.

Owen said...

William @ 8:04: "There's that scene in Huckleberry Finn where half the townspeople pay good money to see a total fraud of a show. They don't tell the other half of the fraud because, since they got gypped, they think that it's only fair the other townspeople also get gypped the following night......."

But what happened on the third night? Both halves of the town went to the show planning to get even on the fraudsters.

chuck said...

And if someone has already found it out, then it's there.

True. But reading papers published back in the 20's impressed me with the care evidently lavished on them. And quality varies from journal to journal and from field to field. I've always liked articles published in the Astronomical Journal, for instance, maybe because there is not a surplus of professional astronomers.

Howard said...

One reason they are not being read is paywalls. I find scientific papers on fluid mechanics, heat transfer and chemistry indispensable when solving industrial process problems. It's possible to download many of them outside the paywall legally. I am aware of the Russian hack that gets behind the wall, but I'm too much of a pussy to use it.

tastid212 said...

A safe space for academics - how nice! And it's all self-selecting so there's no coercion.
But do they actually believe what they're writing as they furiously pad their resumes? Should we feel comfortable letting impressionable kids near them?

walter said...

Blogger Owen said..."It might be a very good thing to contain these academic types in a place where they won't do too much damage."
You owe me a new keyboard.
--
Yes..to the contrary, too many have found the one place where they can do damage.
Hazard in releasing them? WTF would they do?
Better to be players in an "industry" that leverages public funding and gatekeeper employer requirements into massive public or personal debt?
Right. I feel safer.

walter said...

Oh wait..we have the example of an academic sealing their academic record in order to become a two term wrecking ball. Damn. You may be right.

Ken B said...

Actually Gabriel Franklin made money from practical uses of his discoveries right away. Lightning rods were immensely practical and widely used. And "piles" became useful long before Maxwell.

John Farrier said...

My wife and my mom read my journal article. Aside from the editor and peer reviewers, that's probably the whole of my readership.

Perhaps, someday, an undergraduate student will cite me in a paper. Then all those years of effort will be worth it.

Fritz said...

An underestimate.

I do know that at least a few people read at least some of the papers I wrote, because they asked me about them in person, and I had hundreds of reprint requests. But I'm pretty sure that most people didn't get far past the abstract. I rarely did.

Terry said...

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. Oh, I don't think we really want to put academics to work building up society and addressing its problems. It might be a very good thing to contain these academic types in a place where they won't do too much damage. It may be that we have marginalized these very intelligent people who live deeply in their own minds and conjure up new ideas because it's best to keep them separated and deactivated.


I am sure you could run a cost-benefit analysis on this. Why not? The job of everyone else in the US seems to depend on a grading < 1.0 on a cost/benefit analysis. The days when we could use our intuition to say things like 'it would cost more, in the end, to do things differently' are over. Ask Bezos, Zuckerman, and Schmidt if you don't believe me.

Gabriel said...

@Ken B:Gabriel Franklin made money from practical uses of his discoveries right away.

There's a lot Franklin did besides that which didn't pan out for decades, for example his work on light waves, or that there are positive and negative electric charges.

And "piles" became useful long before Maxwell.

Maxwell too did work that didn't pan out for decades. Those two, just to focus on those two, did a thousand things you never heard of. For example, Maxwell proved that Saturn's rings had to be made of tiny rocks. Even now that knowledge is of limited utility.

@Fritz:But I'm pretty sure that most people didn't get far past the abstract. I rarely did.

That's what the abstract is for! When you need to know something, you need to look through thousands of papers. If there were no abstract, do you know how much time would be wasted? Knowing that a paper is probably not what I want, in 30 seconds or less, is incredibly valuable information.



CWJ said...

Half is a very high standard! And I don't mean that as snark. When I was an academic, there was much in which I was not interested in reading. But if it was in my area of professional interest, damn straight I gave it a thorough read.

CWJ said...

Think of it outside academia. When I subscribed to The Smithsonian, I said I did so because there was always at least one article I wanted to read in each issue. Well even then, I suspect I was batting well below 500, and that was my favorite magazine!

James Pawlak said...

Well, they did create "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings".

Michael K said...

I went to college in the 50s. First was engineering and later premed, which was not eligible for a student loan so I majored in English Literature.

I had excellent teachers, One English professor told us he once took a cruise on a freighter with only Spencer's " The Fairie Queen" to read. He said it was the only way he could wade through it. Alone on a ship with nothing else to read for weeks.

I doubt they published anything.

Freeman Hunt said...

Rh, that is interesting about CNN. How does someone there know you have those archives?

pvanstyn said...

And whilst isolate and doing no harm to civil society by dint of their isolation they suck at the public tit. You call that "no harm"?

tim maguire said...

If the argument is that we are housing them for our protection, and not for any contributions they make in that role, then we don't have to do it so expensively. Academia has become a devastatingly expensive scourge on society. Besides, these people are perfectly capable of digging ditches if you start them early enough.

tim in vermont said...

You know who doesn't read peer-reviewed papers? The reporters covering global warming. They might read them, they don't understand them, that much is very clear.

Henry said...

Even the successful academics (and poets and artists) will be lucky if their works are remembered longer than a season. Even those who build and code and design and manufacture are lucky if their work isn't abandoned in a generation.

Lattier has just one more receipe for tearwater tea:

Owl took the kettle out of the cupboard.

“Tonight I will make tear-water tea,” he said.

He put the kettle on his lap.

“Now,” said Owl, “I will begin.”

Owl sat very still.

He began to think of things that were sad.

“Chairs with broken legs,” said Owl.

His eyes began to water.

“Songs that cannot be sung,” said Owl, “because the words have been forgotten.”

Owl began to cry.

A large tear rolled down and dropped into the kettle.

“Spoons that have fallen behind the stove and are never seen again,” said Owl.

More tears dropped down into the kettle.

“Books that cannot be read,” said Owl,

“because some of the pages have been torn out.”

“Clocks that have stopped,” said Owl, “with no one near to wind them up.”

Owl was crying.

Many large tears dropped into the kettle.

“Mornings nobody saw because everybody was sleeping,” sobbed Owl.

“Mashed potatoes left on a plate,” he cried,

“Because no one wanted to eat them.

And pencils that are too short to use.”

Owl thought about many other sad things.


Academic papers that no one will read, said Owl.

EDH said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
EDH said...

"Half of academic papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, peer reviewers..."

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
.


Better yet... Pier Review!

I'm just sittin' on the dock of the bay
Wastin' time

Bob R said...

As others have said, half is a gross overestimate of the number of papers that really move any subject forward. I'd say 88% have no real impact. (All colonically extracted numbers should have smooth edges.) But the 88% have to write if they are going to keep their hands in the game. Research isn't a spectator sport.

Keeping a large group in the game has two advantages. First, like one-hit-wonders in music, many people in the 88% pop out a once in a career paper that is really important. Like most songwriters, they have to keep writing or the one hit never happens. Second, the 88% serve as a paid audience for the small group of superstars. It's not very flattering, but the fact is, most of us simply serve to ask questions of the creative geniuses at the top of our fields.

rhhardin said...

Rh, that is interesting about CNN. How does someone there know you have those archives?

Some dead links to Imus sound clips I used to have are still up. AT&T ended website service though and all those aren't there anymore.

Peter J Barban said...

An amusing thought. And a positive one, too. Somehow this "problem" reminds me of the Blues Brother's version of Rawhide.

PB said...

If professors can't pay attention to each other, why would they be surprised when students don't pay attention to them.

Bruce Hayden said...

If the argument is that we are housing them for our protection, and not for any contributions they make in that role, then we don't have to do it so expensively. Academia has become a devastatingly expensive scourge on society. Besides, these people are perfectly capable of digging ditches if you start them early enough.

I think things are a bit more complicated than that. Sure, some of the faculty earn more than they probably could doing other stuff. And, could easily be replaced by lower priced academics, if not for tenure. But teaching has moved to a two tier system, where much of it is by non-tenured, non-tenure-track faculty, who earn less, often far less, than the tenured (and tenure track) faculty. Many of them have very little security, and not that much pay. As I understand it, in the STEM dept. where my kid is working on their PhD, they have tenured, tenure-track, lecturers, and adjuncts, with the latter earning the least, and the lecturers earning maybe a livable wage. Of course, if you want tenure, or get on the tenure track, you have to publish. Hardest work is the tenure track, who have to teach, raise funding, build a research group, do research, publish, and still engage in the day-to-day BS of academia. At least in STEM, much of the funding is external, so the undergrads aren't paying for a lot of this - unlike humanities and the social sciences.

But, the biggest cost driver seems to be administration. Whose ranks are growing at a much higher rate than that of all faculty. Asst. deans of diversity, and all that. And, many of them make far more than the tenured faculty. And, they don't have to publish. Much of it seems to be to address (mostly) federal govt. mandated BS. Plus, living conditions for students have gotten far better over the years.

mtrobertslaw said...

The only tried and true way to develop one's mind is to read philosophy. Start with the pre-Socratics and slowly work your way up through Kant. Incidentally, the great majority of our very best Western thinkers all had outside jobs. No peer reviewed articles or tenure races for them.

By the way, remember Professor Irwin Corey? He actually wrote an article in his unique style and got it published in an academic journal.

MadisonMan said...

I try to get one peer-reviewed article done each decade. I've actually had 3 published (I'm just a co-author) done this decade, and it's only 2016! 1988, 1992, 1994, 1997, 2013, 2014, 2016. (I had to look this up, I didn't remember off the top of my head)

I was a slacker in the 2000s. The ones from 1988 and 90s are still referenced a lot.

I'm not sure if I'm cited more than my Dad, or than my grandfather. I should check that out.

wildswan said...

Chuck said:
I think of universities as monasteries and every night pray for the reincarnation of Henry VIII.

Before the monasteries were dissolved a whole alternate system was in place involving wandering friars like the Franciscans, wandering preachers, the printing press, a new way of preaching. In fact the universities themselves were replacing the monasteries as educational centers. And furthermore systematic abuses such as selling monastic offices or groups of do-nothing monks were entrenched, a literature criticizing these abuses existed and so did an educated laity like Thomas More and Roger Ascham which had published books on what education meant. I can see the internet in one of its manifestations creating a similar alternate system even for the liberal arts, in fact especially for them since they are the most damaged. Even as universities abolish all requirements and all study of Toxic White Dead Shakespeare, there are online videos and blogs of surpassing interest at a far higher level than most present university courses on him.

But what would be the minimum to know to make oneself an educated person today (Why stop at Kant in philosophy) and is the needed minimum on the Internet yet? Or somewhere else? Maybe someday we could work toward working out some of this on this blog.

glenn said...

Most important: Keeps them from having to pick peaches.

CalisseTabarnac said...

I write this as the uncle-in-law of a young man, now 33 and utterly unemployable, who spent 7 years at Stanford getting a PhD in some obscure liberal arts discipline during which he produced a thesis on the topic of the effect of some form of poetry upon an otherwise-irrelevant community in ancient Greece. Truly.

Do you know who paid for those 7 years of attendance, which included lodging, meals, and health care, at one of our most prominent universities? You and I did. What a ludicrous waste of money.

Anne's thesis of keeping academia insulated form the rest of us is well-founded, and is reaffirmed by events every single day. I just wish that they would be paid the market value for their services, which more often than not, is minimum wage. And even that's being generous.

Michael said...

I run a bulletin board discussion site devoted to old (silent and early sound) movies. There are a few people with serious professional roles in the preservation and distribution of such films, along with a lot of fans and buffs. What there are almost none of are academic figures; they very occasionally come on, tend to pick fights with people who don't automatically defer to them, and leave. If people share something there, it tends to be pretty down to earth and purely for the sake of sharing it with others, which is not to say that it isn't sometimes quite learned and insightful. But it almost never gets caught up in pretentious gobbledygook. Typically you might get 40 or 50 people reading what you say, but that can zoom into the hundreds if it prompts a good discussion.

So, yeah, who needs academic journals no one reads? A place like mine can handle everything from serious research to idle chitchat, draw a decent enough audience to feel that someone read you, and cost next to nothing in time or money. Hard to see that we're missing out.

Richard Dillman said...

Academic publication is quite complex. Different journals serve different purposes. Most of the publishing is done by about 20 % of
academia; most professors only publish 1 or 2 articles in their careers. 80% of academic publishing is done by about 20% of the
professoriate. For articles to be influential they need to be indexed in widely used bibliographies . If someone in literature, say,
needs to identify articles on a pertinent research topic, they must go to the MLA International Bibliography where they can find articles worth reading.