The Value of Useless Research

The following guest post is by Johann Neem, associate professor of history at Western Washington University:

A recent paper by Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein argues that since many papers in literature are rarely cited, colleges and universities should reallocate their priorities in order to make better use of literature professors’ time. Prof. Bauerlein concludes: “To put it bluntly, universities ask English professors to labor upon projects of little value to others, incurring significant opportunity costs.”

One must read the report closely to understand Bauerlein’s point. Bauerlein is rejecting the broader attack on humanities research by policymakers and reformers in such states as Florida and Texas. To these critics, academic research is a waste of money.

The conclusion one must draw from Bauerlein’s report, on the other hand, is that focusing on productivity is a waste of money because it forces faculty to produce faster and more than is necessary. In Bauerlein’s words, “the rising demand for publication output, for instance, the requirement that they have several essays and one book already published plus another project under way in order to earn tenure, places their research agendas on a hasty schedule. Projects that won’t fit the deadlines are avoided. Lines of inquiry that have no quick prospect of finding a publisher are avoided. Research becomes less exploratory and provisional, more aligned with prevailing trends and interests. Most importantly, scholars slip into a nerve-wracking schedule that is contrary to humanistic study (and emotional well-being). The best way to restore it is to solicit fewer printed pages from them.”

In short, academic research is important and we need to do it better, which means offering faculty incentives to spend more time on their research. The best way to do so is to stop measuring productivity for tenure and promotion purposes by numbers alone. They create the wrong incentives.

Bauerlein’s report is likely to be misunderstood because he based his conclusions on citation data. By focusing on how often books or articles are cited (or not), Bauerlein plays into the hands of those who argue that most academic research is wasteful, the very opposite conclusion from his own.

Instead, a better approach would be to help policymakers understand how academic scholarship works. The academic marketplace is different than other markets since scholarship does not seek to generate profit but influence an ongoing interpretive conversation. Like any conversation, some interjections are ignored, others are useful but not profound, and others still change the direction of the conversation altogether. Sometimes, conversations circle back and pick up old ideas that had been forgotten; sometimes they offer something never before thought. In each case, they seek to push forward the conversation at a particular moment.

As a result, some publications create an immediate splash, others none. Some old ones get revived; others gather dust. It’s hard to predict where the conversation will go since it is influenced not just by the internal participants but by changing social contexts and needs.

But an analogy to markets can still be made. A good way to think about academic research is to see in each piece of scholarship an entrepreneurial start-up. In the private sector, the vast majority of new businesses, even those funded by venture capitalists, never make much profit. If we used numbers like Bauerlein’s as our basis, we would stop investing in or even supporting start-up businesses since so few succeed. The private sector’s record of success is as or more dismal than that of academia.

But in the economy, start-ups are vital to the creative processes of the market. We have bankruptcy laws, tax incentives, and targeted funding to urge people to start new businesses, even though we know most will never make a penny.

Given that the search for truth is even more important than the search for new products, we need to offer faculty the same opportunities to try out ideas, knowing that many will falter, but that those which succeed can shed light on the human condition and the natural world.

Companies that depend on creativity know that they must allow their employees to work on their own projects and on their own schedules. Because you never know what will happen, you have to let people go and try things out. The best companies are willing to pay for useless research in the hopes of future profits. They are simply importing into the private sector an idea that has long been the secret of success in the academy: try things out, see where your ideas take you, publish them, and watch what happens….

Like an entrepreneur, every researcher hopes that his or her work will influence the scholarly conversation. But the reality is that it’s very difficult to predict which products (in the market) and which research (in the academic world) will make it. If we could predict, then we could have a Soviet-style command economy. But the dynamism of markets in the private sector is comparable to the dynamism of research in the academic sector. We each try, and some of our work succeeds.

The real problem, as Frank Donoghue makes clear in his book The Last Professors, is not that most papers are not cited, but instead that market thinking has crept into how universities (and faculty themselves) understand their work. We need to be less market-minded. Too often, faculty are measured according to productivity, and recent efforts in Texas will only compound this problem. The wrong kinds of productivity measures force faculty to reduce the quality and importance of their work in order to publish more and faster. As a result, we have more publications—higher faculty productivity by one measure—but less time devoted to each piece of scholarship.

Bauerlein is thus correct that to improve the academic conversation, we should ask faculty to research more and publish less. Time devoted to frantically getting stuff “out” could be used to think more deeply. We should not invest less in scholarly research but invest for the long term. Just as the crash of the derivates market shows the danger of short-term investing, so the proliferation of publications shows the dangers of the pressure to publish.

Critics of scholarship should recognize this point: we need to encourage less productivity when measured by numbers, not less research when measured by time and quality.

2 thoughts on “The Value of Useless Research

  1. Pingback: Whats REALLY going on inside higher education | Brian M. Lucey

  2. This is a great addition to Baurlein’s too often misunderstood article. You’re doing more than summary here, and, like Bauerlein, you’re right on target. Our journals are filling with too many hyper-focused, too-brief projects, alongside ever-increasing amounts of simple garbage, all pushed out in the interests of academic deadlines and simply surviving in one’s institution. Well said.

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