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
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
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
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
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.