Fast-Food Scholarship

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

December 12, 2011

As a long-time editor of a scholarly journal, I review a substantial amount of new scholarship in my field, almost daily. While many academics in the humanities and social sciences are still producing substantive, rigorous, high-quality scholarship, I have noticed a growing trend that disturbs me and others devoted to rigorous research: Too many academics—veterans and neophytes alike—are producing scholarship that appears to have traded careful, methodical, fully developed intellectual work for quick and dirty publication.

I have come to think of such half-baked work as "fast-food scholarship." It's characterized by several factors:

Minimal, selective citation. As an editor and manuscript reviewer for several journals and university presses, I have reviewed innumerable submissions that contain few citations—even though the areas in question have a rich body of published scholarship. These authors mention only one or two works that support (or disagree with) the premise of their article, while ignoring a large and complex corpus of literature on the subject. They cite works to further their thesis, but the ones they choose are often less influential than other citations that could have been included.

Here's an example: I recently reviewed a submitted manuscript on a specialized subject. The manuscript cited a few articles from a special issue that my journal had published more than a decade ago, but completely ignored what had been published on the topic since then. The more-recent work had transformed knowledge in the area, making an argument based on the 11-year-old work seem shallow.

Clearly, the author had gotten his original idea for his manuscript from our special issue, but he had failed to engage in the hard labor of accounting for the full range of scholarship on the topic. I returned the manuscript to the author and suggested that he update the scholarship on which his argument was based, citing three examples of important titles he should consult. Two months later he sent me a slightly revised manuscript with those three titles added to the citation list—and no more.

While I cannot know another person's motives, I am tempted to assume that this author chose not to do the truly difficult intellectual work of reconsidering his argument in light of recent scholarship. Instead he invested a minimal amount of effort in order to try to rush yet another article into print.

Reliance on minimal or anecdotal evidence. A related practice is making big claims supported by little evidence. It's a problem of scope. Not long ago, I reviewed (for a university press) a book manuscript by a senior scholar. One chapter made large claims but was based entirely on what had happened during the author's own class meetings during one semester. In careful and rigorous scholarship, the scope of your evidence must match the scope of your claims, but that author took the easy way out and simply asserted her claims but supported them with insufficient evidence.

Distorted arguments. I'm referring here to manuscripts that wrench a given argument out of context in order to force it to do service to the author's own position. That is an alarmingly common trend, and it represents a type of intellectual dishonesty that is antithetical to the scholarly enterprise.

I read an example of that just yesterday. The author of a submitted manuscript had cited a major scholarly monograph and developed an entire thesis around a point that had been only tentatively expressed in the beginning of the monograph. The problem is that the monograph went on to depart from that position and to demonstrate that the reality was much more complex and nuanced. The author of the manuscript, however, did not account for that complexity or progression of thinking. She simply used the beginning point (and the authority of the monograph author) to develop her own point. That is, at best, sloppy scholarship, and, at worst, unethical.

Woefully undeveloped manuscripts. Too many academics submit articles with half-developed arguments as if they were ready for publication. While length is not a direct indication of how well an argument has been developed, it is, at least, a partial indication of how much space an author has devoted to a subject. Frequently, journals will be flooded with submissions directly after the discipline's annual convention.

The problem is that most conference papers tend to be eight to 10 pages long, while a fully developed scholarly article can be 20 to 50 pages. Some graduate students and faculty members present a paper at an annual conference and then simply mail it to a journal rather than undertake the hard intellectual work of transforming the paper into a fully developed publishable work.

Those are but four practices I am seeing more frequently. Rather than a seven-course, gourmet meal—where you have the opportunity to savor all the flavors (different arguments, nuanced positions, pros and cons) and take your time to digest the material (creating your own nuanced take on the subject)—many authors are opting instead for minimally nutritious (minimally informative or useful) junk food. Fast-food scholarship may satisfy your immediate need—that is, to publish and avoid perishing—but in the end it does great harm to the collective health of intellectual work in our disciplines.

The journal I edit is a respected scholarly forum, as are the many journals and presses I review for, yet they all receive countless submissions that qualify as fast-food scholarship. What's especially alarming is that many of these works actually do get published in one forum or another, thereby doing a disservice to the scholarly community.

Now, it is certainly true that editors these days tend to take a minimalist approach to the scholarly apparatus. We prefer that authors avoid lengthy reviews of the literature, keep articles only as long as they need to be, and keep footnotes short and to a minimum, both in scholarly articles and in books. No editor wants a ponderous piece that puts readers to sleep. I'm not arguing here in favor of an unnecessarily long list of citations or an excessively detailed literature review. But editors' interest in meaningful, relevant citations and a concise, coherent literature review is not meant to condone sloppy, shoddy, and occasionally unethical scholarship. Fast-food scholarship is the antithesis of careful, rigorous research.

What I fear is that in a society in which everyone has an opinion and apparently everyone's opinion is equal, we have lost our passion to truly master a subject before weighing in on it. We have replaced that with a desire to pump out publications. In my mind, true intellectual work requires deep dedication and a willingness to labor long after the amateur would have quit. Too many of our colleagues, I fear, have forgotten that and are focused on the pressure to produce a quantity of works to satisfy hiring or tenure committees.

It may seem strange, but the first thing I do when I receive a submission is to turn to the citations page. That tells me something about the piece I am about to read.

Is the author citing recent works or only older pieces? Is the author citing the principal works that one would expect in the area under discussion, or omitting them? Is the author citing a sufficient number of works to fully develop a premise, or is there a scarcity of citations?

My worry is that we have lost our compass. We have forgotten that our raison d'être is to produce not simply a quantity of published works, but, rather, thoughtful, carefully considered, well-researched, cogently argued scholarship that moves disciplinary knowledge forward.

Lynn Worsham is a professor of English at Idaho State University and editor of JAC, a journal of rhetoric, culture, and politics.