Chugging Along, Producing Knowledge

Mark Bauerlein and colleagues (2010) argue that the publish-or-perish arms race of knowledge production increases costs, fosters poor-quality work, and distracts faculty from teaching. They ask, rhetorically, do we really need the 16,772nd article on Shakespeare? Geoffrey Harpham (2011) thinks that, yes, in fact we do. As our times change we bring new eyes to old texts, finding new insights. Further, by engaging in scholarly pursuits, faculty not only keep their skills sharp for teaching but also model for their students many of the virtues essential for their educational success. Redundancy and mediocrity cannot be avoided, but this is the price paid for continued innovation. Bauerlein would like the academy to take on the reproductive strategy of apes, what is known as K-selection strategy, with fewer offspring that are tended with greater care. Harpham thinks the university must be more like coral, sending millions of eggs into the world, knowing that only a few will take hold and flourish.

There’s another way to argue that the glut isn’t really a problem. The over-production of disciplinary scholarship is not like the over-production of goods in a market. In a commodity market, if goods are not consumed, then prices tank as supplies soar. This can lead to a crash with devastating impacts for the producers. However, in the disciplinary knowledge economy, even if no one consumes (reads) the products, they do not lose value – at least in terms of getting their producer another publication for his or her cv. Indeed, one study found that 82% of peer-reviewed publications in the humanities are never cited. According to the authors’ estimates, that means less than 5% of peer-reviewed humanities papers are ever read by anyone. They further estimate that only ten people read the average journal article. (Biswas and Kirchherr 2015).

In other markets, this situation would culminate in drastic contraction. But the production of knowledge just keeps chugging along…that is, until enough legislators get a hold of these numbers. We think researchers in the humanities need to actively expand their audiences and engage the public, which means diversifying the media they use to communicate. It also means adjusting the ways in which faculty are evaluated by de-centering the peer-reviewed publication as the coin of the realm (see Wittkower, Selinger and Rush 2014).