Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"Killing Pigs and Weed Maps: The Mostly Unread World of Academic Papers"

From Pacific Standard:
According to one study, which was presumably read by more than three people, half of all academic papers are read by no more than three people.
At one of the first academic conferences I ever attended, I heard an economist joke that dissertations are only read by three people: the author, their advisor, and the committee chair. It’s funny in the way that academic jokes are funny: not actually funny but it gets listeners to nod along with the central truth. This specific central truth must resonate with established academics, since I heard versions of this same joke at nearly every conference I attended thereafter.

Like many jokes, this particular one turns out to be half true. A burgeoning field of academic study called citation analysis (it’s exactly what it sounds like) has found that this joke holds true for not just dissertations, but many academic papers. A study at the University of Indiana found that “as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.” That same study concluded that “some 90% of papers that have been published in academic journals are never cited.” That is, nine out of 10 academic papers—which both often take years to research, compile, submit, and get published, and are a major component by which a scholar’s output is measured—contribute little to the academic conversation.
Personally, I have witnessed paper presentations on 17th-century Scottish coins, obscure political parties in countries that no longer exist, and the definition of the word “capitalist.” I distinctly remember focusing not so much on the hyper-specific nature of these research topics, but how it must feel as an academic to spend so much time on a topic so far on the periphery of human interest. It’s not just a few academics, either; these esoteric topics are the rule in academia, not the exception. These topics get researched, presented, published, and, somewhat tragically, immediately dispatched to the far reaches of the JSTOR archives, a digital library consisting of over 2,000 journals.

In an effort to unearth some of these projects, I used a random word generator to search JSTOR and see what results appeared on the first page. What has been ignored?
Search: replicate turner
Search: Indigenous Imbecile