A study by Biswas and Kirchherr (2015) found that 82% of peer-reviewed publications in the humanities are never cited. The study’s authors estimate that less than 5% of peer-reviewed humanities papers are ever read by anyone. It matters little matters if these numbers are correct: they will be used in partisan wars seeking to defund the university, eliminate tenure, and cut research time for professors.
What can we say in defense of the scholarly status quo of publishing specialized research meant for other scholars? Publications, whether cited or not, bring the pleasure of intellectual exploration to their authors. They also provide a means (speciously or not) for distinguishing between candidates for tenure and promotion. But increasingly the question will be asked – and not only by conservatives – why should taxpayers subsidize reams of unread scholasticism? Or as Mark Bauerlein puts it, “After 5,000 studies of Melville since 1960, what can the 5,001st say that will have anything but a microscopic audience of interested readers?”
Philosophers and other humanists have different responses to these criticisms. National Humanities Center Director Geoffrey Harpham (2011), for example, defends the 5,001st article on Melville – or as he frames it, the 16,772nd Book on Shakespeare – arguing that as times change we bring new eyes to old texts, finding new insights. But he does not explain what exactly is the value of these new insights, especially if no one is reading them. There are other possible replies: Research hones teaching skills. Citation counts are crude metrics of value; humanities research contributes to the improvement of culture. And the occasional publication does break-out to cause a big impact.
These are not terrible responses. But they are incomplete, and are much too pat given the historical moment. Humanists do not explain the value of new insights sufficiently well to ward off the tidal wave of the “show me the money” accountability that’s about to crash down on the humanities. Yes, these answers will be sufficient for disciplinary scholarship to continue at elite universities. But if philosophical and humanistic research is to prosper elsewhere, we will need far more than the tired defenses of the current model. We will also need new models – e.g., a de-disciplined or post-disciplinary model – of knowledge production and use.