Academic Articles–Expensive and Mostly Unread

At research universities and many liberal arts colleges,
too, it is universally assumed that research is an unadulterated good. 
Research keeps professors fresh in their fields, makes them better teachers,
and raises intellectual standards for departments.  Who would
disagree?

In conversations about research in my world of the humanities,
though, one doesn’t often hear about one particular aspect of research: its
financial cost.  Yes, we hear about the costs to undergraduates when their
research professors are too busy doing research to hold regular office hours,
and we note the human cost of hiring adjuncts to teach freshman courses (the
costs of morale and exploitation), but I have never seen anybody try to
attach a dollar figure to the books and articles humanities professors produce
every year.

So how much does a research article cost to produce?

Well, if the professor makes $75,000 a year in direct
salary, at least $25,000 of it is research pay.  This is the customary
breakdown at research institutions–one-third research, one-third teaching,
one-third service.  Professors have a reduced teaching load precisely in
order to publish books and articles, and if they don’t produce them, they are
fired at tenure time. Or, after tenure they receive minimal salary changes and
never make it to Full Professor.  (Service includes everything from
serving on a graduate admissions committee to evaluating a manuscript submitted
to a scholarly press to working with undergraduates in some way outside of
teaching.)

In a 40-hour work week, the minimum research labor in one
year amounts to around 700 hours.  If the time it took to
research, compose, and submit the article to a quarterly was 200 hours, then
the article cost around $7,000 (two-sevenths of the professor’s $25,000
research pay).  This figures does not include the cost to the journal to
evaluate it, edit it, and publish it, and to the libraries that subscribe
to the journal.  It doesn’t take into account, either, the costs to other
institutions to have trained and educated the author in graduate school many
years earlier, the expertise acquired there being necessary for the research to
happen.  In other words, $7,000 accounts for only the immediate funds
provided by the institution that employs the professor.

What about the benefit side of the essay?  Well, the
only justification for that essay as a publication is its reception. 
Certainly, the author benefited from the research process, but that benefit
could have happened without or without publication.  No matter how
much the professor learned from the process, and no matter how brilliant and
rigorous the essay itself turned out to be, if it didn’t reach an audience, the
system failed.

Unfortunately, as I found in this recent study,
the vast majority of essays published in literary studies, the largest fields
of the humanities, garner a microscopic audience.  In my survey of essays
published in recent years, I found that most of them collect only a few
citations in the six years after their appearance. Most of those citations,
too, are wholly perfunctory (“For more on such-and-such, see so-and-so . .
.”).  In sum, we have lots of money and lots of labor devoted to
research products that go unappreciated and unnoticed.  It’s an expensive
system with little evidence of proper outcome.  Universities pay an army
of humanities professors large amounts of money to do research, and professors
dedicate months and years of their lives to it (I found little evidence of the
tenured professor who skates by doing nothing), for what purpose? 

The proper scholarly exchange and communication that should
follow the publication of these materials just isn’t much happening except in
the rare breakout cases, and those cases are too infrequent to justify the
money and toil of all the others that sink into oblivion once they appear in
print.  Furthermore, we can’t blame their neglect on the quality of the
items, for many of the overlooked articles and books I scanned are of superb
quality.  The system can’t go on.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

6 thoughts on “Academic Articles–Expensive and Mostly Unread

  1. This article fails to take into account that the education of a student working with a professor who does research (even pointless research) may have a higher value than that of a “learning facilitator.” And that the economy of research is based in the fact that out of a mass of one hundred pieces of research there may be one that produces an advance that makes all the others worth, also financially.

  2. Research is important. It is said that to produce a good intellectual it takes a number of hard working generations of intellectuals. The same for research: in order to produce theory/critique of the highest quality, it takes numerous other people’s efforts to review existing literature and write about the same things repeatedly.
    Sure, some of the articles are not worth reading, but it does not make the effort overall unvaluable.

  3. I think you vastly underestimate the research share of a faculty’s salary at a research university. The school may quote 1/3 1/3 1/3. But anyone who has worked at an R1 school knows that teaching and service will not make up for poor publication record. I think a more accurate mix is 70% research, 25% teaching, and 5% service with an imaginary “passing grade” of 75% needed to get tenure.

  4. Apropos academic articles, I make sure to devote at least 10 hours per week to not reading them. Has worked well, so far.

  5. “Research keeps professors fresh in their fields, makes them better teachers, and raises intellectual standards for departments. Who would disagree?”
    I would. What, exactly, is the purpose of research in the English dept? I was an English major and I am unconvinced that there is anything new to be said about Shakespeare.

  6. Amen. And in addition, much of the result of this idea that all full-time faculty should be publishing research, is research that is not only not read, but not worth reading.

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