A very peculiar practice

Such is the pressure to write that academics have no time to read the flood of published work. John Corner ponders a slightly absurd position

June 11, 2009

Academic publishing has always had its own economy and culture, but sector expansion and the intensified push for print have combined to make it a distinctly odd affair. In most subjects, it is a heavily producer-driven activity, generated more by writerly imperatives than by readerly requirements, even allowing for the idea of the communal pursuit of knowledge.

Given the huge range of outlets, including the growth in subfield journals, questions about the readers for a given piece of writing - who are they and how many of them are there? - have become pressing and strategic. The proliferating options for both offline and online publication offer different kinds of "noticeboard".

You can submit your work to a board with a broad remit, where many readers may be encountering your specific research theme for the first time. Alternatively, you can send it to a subspecialist board with a narrow focus, where some readers may be working on similar themes and reading you partly with the fear that you have messed up their plans (the academic community is a competitive community at least as much as a co-operative one).

Certain outlets, it is clear, have acquired huge visibility and set tough standards for acceptance, whereas others go unseen by many people, even in the field they purport to cover. Books, in contrast, offer a special kind of opportunity: satisfyingly expansive compared with articles but often uncertain as to distribution and readership, particularly if they do not extend to a student readership.

Over and above the choice of where to try to appear in print, there is the issue of just how much time academics now have for reading when so much of their life is taken up with writing. But, since being "out there" is the primary objective, this may not matter greatly. Eventual citation is important, too, but the relationship of this to actual reading can be looser than it may appear.

As a professional activity, reading is beginning to look a bit suspect unless it is in preparation for writing. Spending the weekend reading could be the first sign to colleagues of a failure of nerve. By contrast, consider the sense of self-denying commitment that can be conveyed by lines such as "I spent the whole of the holiday writing" and (as an excuse for failing to do a whole range of things, including teaching, answering emails or acknowledging membership of a family) "I've been trying to finish off some writing".

In this situation, in which "speaking" has become so much more important than "listening" and in which the number of unread or under-read items grows steadily, it is not surprising that there has been an increase in the incidence of repetition and of "missing" citations.

Opportunities for a cumulative progress around topics have sometimes been displaced by a sequence of disconnected interventions. Things are said in one publication that are actually pretty much the same as things said in another a few years earlier, and things that have appeared previously in publications big and small seem not to have been noticed by someone who clearly thinks what he or she is now saying in a particular outlet is quite shocking in its originality. To complicate things further, some writers say roughly the same thing in several different places within a short space of time.

Auditing the recent literature on a topic can be a demanding task, especially for those who haven't got around to having their computer sound an alarm when news of a publication on something they are trying to write about hits cyberspace.

For interdisciplinary themes, this is especially true, because - by definition - these topics attempt to span different academic fields in which a commitment to mutual ignorance is often firmly entrenched, whatever the cheery gestures over the boundary walls.

The research assessment exercise must, I think, share part of the responsibility for the present situation, and for the distortions of research planning, premature publication, near-duplication and insufficient engagement with previous relevant literature that can emerge alongside work of real quality and significance. It would be misguided to blame the writers entirely, since what is happening is structural.

The new emphasis on research as not only a scholarly contribution but as a commodity too has given many academics greater opportunities, although it has also often locked them into career imperatives, driven by anxiety as well as by ambition, thus reducing valuable dimensions of intellectual space.

As an ex-RAE panellist, I am well aware that the emphasis on quality has been paramount in assessment guidelines and procedures.

However, this has not stopped a culture of industrialised productivity establishing itself. Perhaps the RAE might have carried its "four output" rule a little further and required academics to produce only four publications during an assessment period? That would have calmed us all down a bit, for sure.

There is still a fair measure of academic community out there, of course, and while conference sessions can become exercises in sequential monologue ("I think we have three minutes for questions before coffee"), seminars and invited speakers continue to provide the satisfactions of vigorous scholarly exchange.

It might be argued that, despite the new climate, a good proportion of what is going on is intellectually satisfying, both to produce and (if you have time) to read or (if not) perhaps encourage your students or colleagues to read. Certainly, the written circulation of findings and thoughts is a fulfilling as well as a necessary feature of the academic sphere, giving it both focus and realisation.

This does not, however, entirely dispel the sense of a hyperactive, slightly mad dynamic at work, one with a neoliberal whiff to it but also a sad touch of Jonathan Swift's Academy of Lagado, as observed by a bemused Gulliver.

Our work may not be as fruitless as trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers or attempting to turn ice into gunpowder, perhaps, but it often comes with a questionable relationship between time spent, effort expended, worries experienced and the final significance of what we have now learnt to call "outcomes". l

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