Academic publishing: The big con game

My academic field was military history. That meant that I could find an audience for my work. As Thomas Hardy wrote: “My argument is that War makes rattling good history; but Peace is poor reading.” When I did have a manuscript to publish, not only would I find a publisher, but I’d also get an advance. When I became department chair I discovered that the market for some of the stuff the faculty wrote was so narrow, that the university was expected to pay a subvention. In other words, we had to pay to get Professor X’s work published because everyone knew that virtually no one, other than a few specialists and a handful of libraries, would purchase a copy.

I actually made money on my dissertation! Nevertheless, I have to admit that it was several years before someone actually cited my work, and then cited it incorrectly. (The guy later admitted to me that he hadn’t actually read what I had written. He had cited it to make sure his scholarship looked up to date.)

Thus, this comes as no surprise: “Using Elsevier’s Scopus database, a team at Times Higher Education found that 75 percent of papers published in 2012 in the fields of literature and literary theory had collected not a single citation. Not one.”

https://www.mindingthecampus.org/2018/04/publish-and-perish-the-zero-sum-game-of-literary-research/

Several years ago, I did a study on the costs and impact of literary research. The point was to show how much research was published and how often it was consulted. The answer to the first part was this: piles and piles of it, fully 70,000 items of scholarship each year in all the fields of language and literature. That includes dissertations, books, chapters, essays, reviews, editions, and note and queries. The answer to the second: barely at all. From what I found, most works of scholarship don’t even earn one citation per year. That sad study was sponsored by the James Madison Program at Princeton and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

The study didn’t change anything about academic practice, though. Literature professors weren’t interested in the finding of enormous work leading to almost no impact—and who can blame them? They are deeply invested in the research enterprise. For many of them, it is the very meaning of their professional lives. They spend long hours researching and writing and revising these essays and books, and their careers often depend upon them. In English, you still need a book and several essays published, and another book in progress, to earn tenure. To learn that hardly anybody ever reads them is a hard experience.

But the facts haven’t changed. A report issued last week tallied citations of scholarship in different fields, and the counts for literature and theory were abysmal. Using Elsevier’s Scopus database, a team at Times Higher Education found that 75 percent of papers published in 2012 in the fields of literature and literary theory had collected not a single citation. Not one.

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