Several years ago, I did a study on the costs and impact of literary research. The point was to show how much research was published and how often it was consulted. The answer to the first part was this: piles and piles of it, fully 70,000 items of scholarship each year in all the fields of language and literature. That includes dissertations, books, chapters, essays, reviews, editions, and note and queries. The answer to the second: barely at all. From what I found, most works of scholarship don’t even earn one citation per year. That sad study was sponsored by the James Madison Program at Princeton and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
The study didn’t change anything about academic practice, though. Literature professors weren’t interested in the finding of enormous work leading to almost no impact—and who can blame them? They are deeply invested in the research enterprise. For many of them, it is the very meaning of their professional lives. They spend long hours researching and writing and revising these essays and books, and their careers often depend upon them. In English, you still need a book and several essays published, and another book in progress, to earn tenure. To learn that hardly anybody ever reads them is a hard experience.
But the facts haven’t changed. A report issued last week tallied citations of scholarship in different fields, and the counts for literature and theory were abysmal. Using Elsevier’s Scopus database, a team at Times Higher Education found that 75 percent of papers published in 2012 in the fields of literature and literary theory had collected not a single citation. Not one.
None of this should surprise anybody. According to the Modern Language Association International Bibliography, 2,025 works of scholarship on William Faulkner have been published since January 2000. Shakespeare drew 19,901. After so much interpretation and editing and analysis and archival digging and historical contextualization and theoretical speculation by so many people, what could one possibly say about Faulkner next year that would repeat what has been said before? Only something idiosyncratic, microscopic, edgily theoretical, or so innovative it can hardly be recognized as scholarly.
A system that expends so much human capital on the production of unwanted goods is crazy. We pay people to do it, though. Traditionally, professors at research institutions are supposed to devote one-third of their time to research (the other two-thirds go to teaching and service). If we consider one-third of their salary correspondingly pays for their research labor, a mountain of dollars is going to waste, and so are the talents of higher educators.
If, instead of asking professors to produce original scholarship and publish-publish-publish, we urged them to focus on teaching and ponder ways to draw more underclassmen into English and foreign language classrooms, the enrollment trends and the job market wouldn’t be so dismal. If professors keep laboring for months and years over work that will end up in a few hundred library shelves rarely or never to be checked out, the discipline as a whole will continue to slide.