Killing Pigs and Weed Maps: The Mostly Unread World of Academic Papers

According to one study, which was presumably read by more than three people, half of all academic papers are read by no more than three people.
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(Photo: Brendan Howard/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Brendan Howard/Shutterstock)

At one of the first academic conferences I ever attended, I heard an economist joke that dissertations are only read by three people: the author, their advisor, and the committee chair. It’s funny in the way that academic jokes are funny: not actually funny but it gets listeners to nod along with the central truth. This specific central truth must resonate with established academics, since I heard versions of this same joke at nearly every conference I attended thereafter.

Like many jokes, this particular one turns out to be half true. A burgeoning field of academic study called citation analysis (it’s exactly what it sounds like) has found that this joke holds true for not just dissertations, but many academic papers. A study at Indiana University found that “as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.” That same study concluded that “some 90% of papers that have been published in academic journals are never cited.” That is, nine out of 10 academic papers—which both often take years to research, compile, submit, and get published, and are a major component by which a scholar’s output is measured—contribute little to the academic conversation.

Personally, I have witnessed paper presentations on 17th-century Scottish coins, obscure political parties in countries that no longer exist, and the definition of the word “capitalist.” I distinctly remember focusing not so much on the hyper-specific nature of these research topics, but how it must feel as an academic to spend so much time on a topic so far on the periphery of human interest. It’s not just a few academics, either; these esoteric topics are the rule in academia, not the exception. These topics get researched, presented, published, and, somewhat tragically, immediately dispatched to the far reaches of the JSTOR archives, a digital library consisting of over 2,000 journals.

In an effort to unearth some of these projects, I used a random word generator to search JSTOR and see what results appeared on the first page. What has been ignored?

Search: replicate turner

Search: Indigenous Imbecile

Search: sunset shivering

Two questions come immediately to mind: Why would anyone study these things, and why would anyone pay someone to study these things? The first question is largely unanswerable, in that people are interested in all kinds of things. Academia’s incentive structure is such that it’s better to publish something than nothing.

The second question is the more interesting one. According to The New Republic, the National Endowment for the Humanities saw its funding cut by 17 percent between 2010 and 2013, a figure cited within an article written by Christina Paxson, a trained economist and president of Brown University, about the importance of the humanities. (The social sciences are currently facing massive cuts, as well.) Her article quotes Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Studies, as saying that mankind’s most significant discoveries have been made by “men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.” Paxson springboards off this claim to argue, “We should be prepared to accept that the value of certain studies may be difficult to measure and may not be clear for decades or even centuries.”

The most famous example of this theorem is one that's actually untrue, but no less instructive. In the 19th century, when Michael Faraday passed a wire through a coil and essentially discovered electromagnetism, the legend goes, a congressman in charge of public funding for the sciences questioned the discovery’s importance: You got a needle to move, so what? Faraday’s supposed reply has become a kind of academic lore: “I don’t know of what use this will be, but one day you will tax it.”*

Of course, arguing that any study can be justified because we cannot know what research will prove useful is an un-falsifiable and unsatisfying reply to a current academic reality where research agendas must be monetarily prioritized. This “anything could be useful” approach is distinctly different from arguing that everything is useful. There must be some way to distinguish between the useful and the esoteric. Perhaps the esoteric field of citation analysis can help us decide what’s not.

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Reader Responses: The Mostly Unread World of Academic Papers

*UPDATE — March 18, 2014: We originally implied that the Faraday story was true, but, according to Snopes, that is not the case. There is also disagreement on the numbers cited from the University of Indiana study.

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