The Chronicle Review

The Research Bust

Douglas Paulin for The Chronicle

December 04, 2011

In my hand I have a hefty article on a canonical English poet, published 10 years ago in a distinguished journal. It runs for 21 pages and has 31 footnotes, with extensive references to philosophy and art. The article is learned, wide-ranging, and conversant with scholarship on the poet and theoretical currents in literary studies. The argument is dense, the analysis acute, on its face a worthy illustration of academic study deserving broad notice and integration into subsequent research in the field.

That reception doesn't seem to have happened. When, on May 25, I typed the title into Google Scholar, only nine citations of the original article showed up. Of those nine, six of them make only perfunctory nods in a footnote, along the lines of "Recent examples include ... " and "For a recent essay on the subject, see. ... " The other three engage with the essay more substantively, but not by much, inserting in their text merely two or three sentences on the original essay. Additionally, in books on the English poet published from 2004 to 2011 that don't show up on Google Scholar (the search engine picks up most major humanities journals but is sketchy on books), the original article receives not a single citation.

That adds up to but a handful of sentences of commentary on the original article by other scholars in the 10 years after its publication. On the input side, we have 100-plus hours of hard work by a skilled academic, plus the money the university paid the professor to conduct the research. On the impact side, we can be sure of only a few scholars who incorporated it into their work. The quality is high, the professionalism obvious, but the reception of the article hasn't come close to matching the time and energy and talent it took to create it.

Unfortunately, this is not a singular instance. However much they certify their authors as professionals and win them jobs and tenure, essays and books of high scholarly merit in literary studies suffer the same inattention all the time. Why? Because after four decades of mountainous publication, literary studies has reached a saturation point, the cascade of research having exhausted most of the subfields and overwhelmed the capacity of individuals to absorb the annual output. Who can read all of the 80 items of scholarship that are published on George Eliot each year? 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?

To test that supposition, I devised a study of literary research in four English departments at public universities—the University of Georgia, the University at Buffalo, the University of Vermont, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—collecting data on salaries, books and articles published, and the reception of those works. The findings:

  • Those universities pay regular English faculty, on average, around $25,000 a year to produce research. According to the faculty handbooks, although universities don't like to set explicit proportions, research counts as at least one-third of professors' duties, and we may calculate one-third of their salaries as research pay. This figure does not include sabbaticals, travel funds, and internal grants, not to mention benefits, making the one-third formula a conservative estimate.
  • Professors in those departments respond diligently, producing ample numbers of books and articles in recent years. At Georgia, from 2004 to 2009, current faculty members produced 22 authored books, 15 edited books, and 200 research essays. The award of tenure didn't produce any drop-off in publication, either. Senior professors continue their inquiries, making their departments consistently relevant and industrious research centers.
  • Finally, I calculated the impact of those publications by using Google Scholar and my own review of books published in specific areas to count citations. Here the impressive investment and productivity appear in sobering context. Of 13 research articles published by current SUNY-Buffalo professors in 2004, 11 of them received zero to two citations, one had five, one 12. Of 23 articles by Georgia professors in 2004, 16 received zero to two citations, four of them three to six, one eight, one 11, and one 16.

Books performed better, but not enough when we consider how much more labor goes into a monograph. A 2000 book on Gerard Manley Hopkins collected four citations in eight relevant books on the poet published from 2007 to 2010. A 2003 book on Thomas Hardy garnered one citation in 16 relevant books published from 2007 to 2010. Of eight books published by Vermont professors from 2002 to 2005, four of them received zero to 10 citations in subsequent essays, and four received 11 to 20 (four of the top five were studies in film).

There are, of course, some breakout items. One book by an Illinois professor collected 82 citations in essays, another one 57. But in assessing the system, calculating its full costs and impact, we shouldn't let the few instances of abundant notice eclipse the others. If a department produces six books in one year, each one the product of four years of labor by each author, and only one of them attracts significant attention, we should set that one book on the benefit side and 24 years of labor on the cost side. The unfortunate conclusion is that the overall impact of literary research doesn't come close to justifying the money and effort that goes into it.

Of course, there are several immediate objections to these findings:

Research makes professors better teachers and colleagues. Agreed, but not at the current pace. We want teachers to be engaged in inquiry, but we don't need them to publish a book and six articles before we give them tenure. We shouldn't set a publication schedule that turns them into nervous, isolated beings who end up regarding an inquisitive student in office hours as an infringement. Let's allow 10 years for a book, and let's tenure people for three strong essays. The rush to print makes them worse teachers and colleagues.

So some works get overlooked—so what? We need lots of research activity to produce those few works of significance. Agreed, but how much, and at what cost? If a professor who makes $75,000 a year spends five years on a book on Charles Dickens (which sold 43 copies to individuals and 250 copies to libraries, the library copies averaging only two checkouts in the six years after its publication), the university paid $125,000 for its production. Certainly that money could have gone toward a more effective appreciation of that professor's expertise and talent. We can no longer pretend, too, that studies of Emily Dickinson are as needed today, after three decades have produced 2,007 items on the poet, as they were in 1965, when the previous three decades had produced only 233.

Google Scholar and citation counts are hardly the best way to examine humanities research. Yes, these are blunt, partial instruments, and a full assessment requires qualitative judgments. But they do initiate a process that is necessary at a time of scarce resources. With English and foreign languages having lost more than half of their share of undergraduate degrees in recent times, we cannot devote our energies to projects of little consequence. In 1988, when I left graduate school, writing a book stood tall as the most effective way of promoting English. Citation counts explode that pretense and point professors toward better advocacy of their fields, like organizing undergraduate reading groups.

People offering these objections are wrong not on principle, but on reality. Yes, research is an intellectual good, and yes, we shouldn't reduce our measures to bean counting. But we can no longer ignore the costs of supporting research—financial costs (salaries, sabbaticals, grants, travel; the cost to libraries to buy and store material, to scholarly presses to evaluate, produce, and market it; and to peers to review it), opportunity costs (not mentoring undergraduates, not pushing foreign languages in general-education requirements, etc.), and human costs (asking smart, conscientious people to labor their lives away on unappreciated things).

The research identity is a powerful allure, flattering people that they have cutting-edge brilliance. Few of them readily trade the graduate seminar for the composition classroom. But we have reached the point at which the commitment to research at the current level actually damages the humanities, turning the human capital of the discipline toward ineffectual toil. More books and articles don't expand the audience for literary studies. A spurt of publications in a department does not attract more sophomores to the major, nor does it make the dean add another tenure-track line, nor does it urge a curriculum committee to add another English course to the general requirements. All it does is "author-ize" the producers.

Deep down, everybody knows this, but nobody wants to take the first step in reducing the demand. It's like a prisoner's dilemma. People at the University of X worry that if they say, "We no longer require a book for tenure," their peers at the Universities of Y and Z will use it against them: "Look at X, they're lowering their standards." The time has come, however, for departments firmly to declare the counterpoint: "No! We ask for less because we judge on quality, not quantity. We are raising standards, not lowering them."

Sheer output is a pretense ready to be exploded, but still, it will take departments of the highest prestige to set a different standard, along with the Modern Language Association, whose recent and current leadership has recognized the problem but can go further in developing explicit quantity recommendations. Those leaders may find a grateful constituency among the professoriate, none of whom favor the current system.

Deans and department heads always fear faculty reaction, but if they cast their policy changes as making faculty lives and labors better, less wasteful, and more meaningful, 20 years from now we may look back upon the research years of literary studies, 1970 to 2010, as a remarkable epoch that arose, evolved, and waned as has every other cultural movement over time.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University and a blogger for Brainstorm. This essay is based on "Literary Research: Costs and Impacts," a report he wrote for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.