Blog Post

Academic Scholarship: Reform the Demand Side!

(x-posted in full from my blog, where it looks better :)  )

 

Apparently a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Mark Bauerlein has humanities faculty all astir – I discovered it via Carol Stabile’s blog this morning. Bauerlein discovers that nobody cites most work in the humanities (which is sort of like discovering that the sky is up, but bear with him…). He argues, “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.”

That seems undeniably true, but his analysis seems to miss a few important factors, on the production side of academic work, but more importantly on the demand side.

tl;dr, he’s pointing out what the Politburo of the Soviet Union discovered in the 1980s: if you subsidize production that has no demand, you end up with (a) lowest-quality-possible goods and (b) lots of them sitting around unsold.

I’m going to pass on the snark of an entire profession apparently not understanding freshman microeconomics – at least American humanities faculties didn’t have a country to run for 70 years.

Bauerlein describes a situation in academia where production of journal articles is both required and subsidized. He concludes that this system is wasteful, but in Soviet-logic suggests as a remedy lowering production quotas.

One logical flaw is that lowering output likely won’t materially affect the crap-to-quality ratio: Sturgeon’s Law holds that 95% of everything is crap. Bauerlein seems to be arguing that reducing the total volume of output will somehow involve reducing the 95% while maintaining the 5%, without otherwise changing the incentive structure of the system that produces so much crap. There’s no particular reason to think that reducing the publication requirements for tenure across the board would make insightful geniuses out of hacks – they’ll simply be producing three crap articles for tenure instead of six.

The system – precisely like the Soviet economy (look, I’m not going Gresham’s law here – I actually have a master’s degree in Soviet economic systems. Don’t ask.) doesn’t require quality in output past a bare minimum of peer review (which like Soviet production standards is gamed – since we all need to produce volume, we’re incentivized to accept crap output from others in return for their accepting our crap output) but rather quantity. Basic human nature points to a race to the bottom, or producing to the minimum acceptable standard.

Sturgeon’s Law is just a manifestation of a greater problem: we’re past the era of the bell curve and into that of the long tail. Bauerlein notes that most works receive effectively no citations while a tiny handful make a huge impact. While he’s looking at articles in academic journals in the humanities, the same observation holds for books, music, blog readership. Cutting production won’t change that, though it might lop off some of the tail. He raises an important issue in respect to the power curve, though – should we *subsidize* the tail?

Production of tail-goods is probably a net economic loss, but a better conception of the tail is “monetizing amateur production” rather than “return on investment of priced labor.” Academia is one of the few instances where long-tail production is subsidized by a full-time employment model: we don’t pay salaries to our artists, musicians and fanfic writers to produce (though there was a hilarious Soviet-era satirical novel with that premise – I think it was Vladimir Voinovich’s Moscow 2042, but I’m not sure).

However, there are several consumption-side problems as well. One is another perverse incentive of the current academic system: it rewards knowledge production but effectively penalizes knowledge consumption, the reverse of many professions.

Professions tend to have a “continuing education” requirement for practitioners to stay current in their field, while teaching continuing education is generally regarded as fulfilling a service commitment or providing an opportunity for professional networking/advertising as a specialist.

Academics have no requirement, or indeed incentive, to read the articles their system demands they produce. So why should anyone be surprised that articles don’t get read?

Put another way, there is no market for academic research in the humanities. Well, aside from grad students forced to do literature reviews, but that’s not enough to sustain an industry.

Really, this should be obvious.

Instituting a continuing education requirement for humanities faculty would go a long way to solving the problem.

Say I’m a professor of 19th Century American literature. My “trade association” negotiates a list of critical new developments in the field over the past, say, two years. To participate meaningfully, I’m going to have to be familiar with the corpus of production. We then agree that some few articles were sufficiently important that everyone working in the field should be familiar with them. We invite the authors to do a seminar, which everyone in the field is required to attend, either physically or by webcast subscription. We’re then given a certificate of attendance which we have to submit to our employers as proof of continuing qualification to practice.

The scholars whose work is highlighted get national attention and a good cut of the gate, thus rewarding scholarship for which there is peer demand. Faculty are required to stay current in their disciplines, and there’s another level of peer review to separate the 5% from the mass of Sturgeon’s Law production.  Also, with the best work highlighted, it’s more likely to make its way into curricula, exposing students to the best current thought and examples of professional excellence, improving both the quality of the material taught and demonstrating status incentives to academic careers, solving another problem raised by Bauerlein.

This won’t happen, of course. The academic wars over the notion and nature of canon are still too fresh for a “continuing education” or “super peer reveiw” system to take hold. And since 95% of the producers would lose their production subsidies, barring an internal coup at the top, the system will push hard to continue Brezhnevian stagnation.

On the other hand, the stakes  – both economic and cultural – are fairly low. The price of stagnation – the continued marginalization and trivialization of the humanities – isn’t very high, and is easily paid by the current order.

For now.

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7 comments

This is the most thought-provoking contribution to this very tired and boring debate that I've read in a long time.  Thank you!   I don't know where it will lead but it is so useful to point out the fallacy.  (A wag in the room with me just said maybe Mark Bauerlein should practice what he preaches, writing half as much of what he's writing now--alas, that really won't double the quality, will it?  not for him, not for anyone).  

 

Do you happen to know the piece I wrote for PMLA a few years ago called "Humanities 2.0" where I did question the really terrible stats in my own original field of English:  over 83% of Research I universities require the equivalent of a university press monograph for tenure.  That's the highest  percentage of any field and yet we Englishers purchases the lowest  percentage of university press monographs of any field.  That appals me.   It means we don't teach in classes (where most university press books are used), even graduate classes, very many of the full-length monographs that we ourselves say is the gold standard by which admittance is granted to our profession.   I have aruged that we should be requiring a minimum of two or three full-length monographs, to be held up as examples and studied with great care (all the close reading we devote to primary texts), in graduate courses certainly but also undergraduate in order to honor the standard we propose----or we should change the standard.   One or the other.   Otherwise, we're asking young scholars to excel in the extremely challenging publishing environment (no scholarly book publishing pays for itself and literary scholarship is a huge money loser, a real liability for presses) without even having spent studying what the requirements, configurations, and best examples of the genre are.   Historians read other historians, anthropologists read other anthropologists, literary scholars read literature.  That's not so helpful to the young scholar learning how to write a monograph that, at present, is the only gateway to tenure at most Research I universities. 

 

That's not your argument but, as I said, an orthogonal one.  I love the ideas your piece provokes.  Thank you!   I hope the discussion continues and flourishes. 

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Cathy, thanks so much for your kind words!  It's daunting entering into such a long-running discussion; I'm glad I had something useful to add.

Great point on literary scholars reading literature rather than other scholars' work - I hadn't considered that. I completely agree with you about assigning monographs: my STS courses did a great job in exposing me to what academics are expected to produce, and I'm trying to do the same in my games studies classes. I think it's an important part of apprenticeship - reading for craft as much as content.

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It's good to think about these issues, but Bauerlein's "research" is very very weak.  He does a casual google scholar seach for citations and then says that those with low citations are not being read.  This ignores the huge amount of reading that goes on that may or may not lead to citation.  I assign articles and chapters in all my graduate and undergraduate courses.  I read articles that influence my own teaching, even if I don't cite them in scholarship.  I read books and articles outside of the field in which I publish. Like most older scholars, I used to go to the library once or twice a year to skim journals and see what articles I should read: now of course I can do that from my home or office. I also write some books that do not show up in google scholar.  Bauerlein's "research" is far too weak to require any action on anyone's part.

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As managing editor of an academic journal, I'd like to comment on the idea that 95% of scholarly publishing is worthless dross. Like many journals, ours regularly rejects 90% of what's submitted. Of the remainder, a few articles are accepted with minor revisions, some with moderate revisions, and many are assigned to our "revise and resubmit" category, where we provide extensive readers reports to authors and request that they undertake major revisions.

The process of peer review and revision can be, I believe, educational for authors and provides the important benefit of bringing their work before a community of colleagues, often far afield from their home universities and departments. When this system works the way it's supposed to, it _is_ the continuing education called for above.

Yes, "super peer review" might add a useful additional mechanism for promoting (enforcing?) awareness of provocative or groundbreaking work in some disciplines. But Bauerlein's research shows that extraordinary articles and books already "break through" to the awareness (and citations) of other scholars. Presumably this is because people in academia continue to read: to browse journals, university press catalogs, book reviews, etc., and to find the work they want to absorb.

Currently this whole system is supported by nonprofit publishing and the fact that grad students and professors receive stipends and salaries. Should it be subjected to market forces? I would argue not. We've seen what financial incentives have done to, for example, biochemistry, where our brightest minds are researching newer, better Prozac.

Finally, a confession: as a grad student in the journal-laden field of classics, I found reading academic articles to be at times tedious, even mind-numbing, but the level of scholarship I encountered -- the carefully presented evidence, the erudite, multilingual footnotes -- gave me my best understanding of what it meant to be part of a international community of research. And when I came across a gem, an article that blew away old assumptions and brought new ideas to bear, it was well worth the wait and the slog.

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Livia, thank you for your insightful remarks and your perspective!

I definitely agree that the editing process is excellent and invaluable training, and that it produces better academic writers. To extend my metaphor, though, that's a production side improvement. Valuable as it is, it doesn't address incentives or disincentives of the current system on the demand side.

My perspective is very limited: I'm in a tiny interdisciplinary program, and don't get to observe closely a lot of faculty. But from that very narrow vantage point, what I've seen is that even the excellent scholars of my acquaintance don't do nearly the journal reading of the partners I worked with at Wall Street law firms, who were putting in often double the hours. The pressures to keep current in law seem to be much stronger than those in academia (don't even get me started on the professor of writing I had last year, who was working with his course material from the 1970s).

I may not have been clear on my use of the term "market" - I didn't mean, necessarily, commercial financial incentives, as in the biochemistry case, but in the more general sense of a system which creates/identifies needs and matches them with producers who satisfy them.

In that sense, the current "market" for acadeimic research in the humanities does seem to suffer from demand-side structural flaws. I'm a grad student, and thus structurally defined as a consumer of articles. I too have read wonderful things, and had the privilege of passing them on to my students.

However, aside from "intellectually curious grad students" being too small a base for building the edifice of academic publishing atop, the delivery system of the product hasn't kept pace with other communication forms.  If someone produces intellectual product of most any other form that might be interesting to me, there are systems that will push it to me, from my RSS reader to Last.fm to Amazon recommendations, to recommendations from my network on Facebook and Twitter. Google Scholar isn't as helpful as it could be; or I need more advanced search strategies than I have. I'm forced to, when I think of it, troll electronically through the journals I know of.  Push subscriptions don't exist, or are impossibly expensive for an individual.

One of my students made that point in comments on my blog: he'd like to *get* a few journals of interest, but the pricing and delivery system makes it impossible. By contrast, most all of us in law school had a subscription to the American Bar Association law journal and free copies of our own law review, which were invaluable in introducing students very early to exactly the beneficial process you describe.

At the very least, subscription and delivery systems for journals need to be changed to enable, not wall off, access.

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Livia, thanks so much for your comments on this. I very much appreciate your perspective.

John, I'd like to push back on this aspect of your previous comment:

I may not have been clear on my use of the term "market" - I didn't mean, necessarily, commercial financial incentives, as in the biochemistry case, but in the more general sense of a system which creates/identifies needs and matches them with producers who satisfy them.

A system that, as you say, identifies and/or creates needs, and then matches them with suitable producers is substantively the same thing as what Livia identifies in her Prozac example, just on a different scale and with different incentives. You might not be producing drugs, but you are still producing a product with the intent to distribute it based on targeted market research. At least that is what I take away from what you've written above and in your initial post (and your initial post seems more focused on creating new opportunities for people to desire and consume what you later call "intellecual product").

Livia, I assume that what you cite in your pharmaceutical example -- "We've seen what financial incentives have done to, for example, biochemistry, where our brightest minds are researching newer, better Prozac" -- refers to what is widely known as the 90/10 rule (or the 10/90 gap), an observation that 90% of the world's pharmaceutical R&D funding goes into researching drugs and solutions applicable and affordable to only 10% of the world's population (Prozac, Viagra, etc). And conversely, the remaining 10% of resources goes toward drugs that benefit the other 90% of the world's population (new drugs to combat resistant tuberculosis is a favorite example of authors like Thomas Pogge). Livia, what I take you to be proposing here is that subjecting academic scholarship to similar market forces would produce a similarly distorted set of incentives in academic writing.

From a publishing perspective (I used to work in academic publishing) this profit structure, however, is already in place to a significant degree -- just without the pernicious incentives, at least as I see things. Most organs that publish what we would consider to be academic scholarship have cost and profit structures where other, more commercial endeavors provide the majority of their profits. Large university presses like Oxford and Cambridge, as well as commercial presses like Pearson and Routledge that publish academic writing, derive a significant portion (in many cases the majority) of their revenue from sales of reference materials and ELT textbooks. The market for these materials is massive, relatively speaking. Trade presses like Penguin, Random House, FSG, etc, that also publish the occasional academic book with broad appeal earn most of their revenue from sales of popular blockbusters. My understanding of university-affiliated presses is that prominent ones like Duke, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc, have cultivated stable sources of revenue, like library subscriptions to journals they publish, and that smaller presses often difficulty from a commercial perspective and are treated as a wing of the larger university. (My experience in this last area is less thorough, though.)

The point is that as I understand the situation, and except in a notable minority of cases, academic scholarship is not lucrative in the short run. Monographs and journal subscriptions are expensive, especially to individuals, and so we get them from the library. I think Livia's point is well taken in that, if academic publishing were to cultivate itself as a for-profit enterprise as opposed to the current non-profit/patron model, demand would have to come from somewhere outside the academy. The days where The Liberal Imagination sells nearly 200,000 copies in its initial set of printings aren't gone -- they're simply confined to a small number of cases, such as the University of California Press' good fortune with their Mark Twain autobiography. Coursework, research, and publication involves producing a great deal of writing aimed at being intelligible, interesting, and novel for one's colleagues, peers, and reviewers. This already is a species of marketing, and for many -- especially for early-stage scholars -- it provides enough conventions to master before thinking about a whole other set of proposed demand-side needs.

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Kyle, thanks for getting me thinking.

I'm seeing three different structures at issue here. I'm distinguishing between my original case, which addressed the lack of a substantial demand for journal output among humanities academics. That's independent entirely, I think, of the business model of academic publishing - which can then be split into the current system of "artificially restricted supply at artificially high prices," and a potential model of typical digital-goods pricing, where the market price of goods on the long tail tends towards zero.

My original case starts with the question, "who might read academic production and why?" Under the current system of incentives, the answer is "practically nobody other than grad students, who're tasked with reading for comps/dissertation work." That question is, I think, entirely separate from the business model of academic publishers, a point which is implicit - but definitely not clear enough -  in my argument. Under the current incentive system, if every professor were automatically given a free copy of every potentially relevant journal and monograph, consumption patterns wouldn't change much - because the problem isn't one of *supply,* which Bauerlein, you and Livia are focused on, but on *demand.*

The system is so production-focused that we're struggling to articulate a mutually comprehensible language for even *talking about* the demand side.

I think the current business model of artifical scarcity - based on sales of paper goods to university libraries almost exclusively - makes matters worse. But only *at the margins,* as my thought experiment of unlimited free product demonstrates. Tweaking the demand side all you want won't materially fix the problem of nobody reading the vast bulk of scholarly production.

That problem can only be fixed by changing the incentive structure on the *demand* side. Some of that is price-dependent; some is access-dependent; but the bulk is the product of professional incentives. Law, medicine, accounting, engineering, provide powerful structural incentives for consuming excellent new work on a regular basis. University teaching of the humanities does not.

That's the hard stuff. Business cases and pricing models are relatively trivial second-order questions.

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