Publish and Perish: The Zero Sum Game of Literary Research


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.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory.

One thought on “Publish and Perish: The Zero Sum Game of Literary Research”

  1. In this instance I believe Bauerlein is wrong. Not that most publications in literature remain obscure and largely unread, but that professors should therefore desist from research and writing. My reasoning is simple: it can’t be known in advance which research will turn out to be significant and which not. This is, of course, true in most fields, and that’s why it makes no sense to discourage research a priori.

    People who don’t want to do research can go into teaching K-12 (these days often expanded to “K-16,” which ought to be worrisome, not celebrated).

    Many professors do only the research needed for tenure and promotion, true; but, again, one doesn’t know in advance which individuals this will be. I have seen professors complain bitterly that research is more highly valued than teaching and service, yet even when they believe it will affect their salaries, they often remain unproductive. That’s because in fact research and writing are difficult; they are done largely in isolation, are laborious and unpredictable, and require imagination and drive. Teaching involves some of these characteristics, too, but in rather a different way. I suspect the difficulty involved in research is one reason that so many professors in the humanities have simply capitulated to the politicization of their fields: the paths they must follow, and the commitments they must manifest, are all laid out (and praised) in advance. That surely makes life easier, makes them comfortably fit in, seem to occupy the moral high ground, and may even answer any questions one might pose about the significance of the humanities. Answer badly, I should add.

    As Bauerlein knows well, the humanities have been self-destructing for a long time because of these pseudo-politics, which leave entire fields defenseless while other areas of the university can, rightly, claim greater relevance and commitment. The note of falsity (often compensated for by highly pretentious language) brought to many programs –literature in particular–is not lost on either students or professors, who therefore insist even more vehemently on their unique relevance and rush to embrace the latest turn of identity politics. One sees these problems reflected in many literature graduate students, who do not love literature, judging by the slim efforts to read anything not absolutely required.
    But administrators, though they speak the same language of high-minded political commitments, aren’t fooled, and it’s perfectly reasonable for them not to be enthusiastic supporters of fields that evidently don’t even believe in themselves.

    None of this, however, implies that study of the arts is of no significance and that research in the humanities is now superfluous. It would be nice if professors of literature understood that and refrained from joining their attackers in undermining what should be a key aspect of higher education.

    Not doing research doesn’t automatically translate into being a better teacher or more committed to one’s field. Far from it. And as for service: professors do that as a function of being at a university; it is not a reason for being there.

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