The Value of Doing Research - and Sharing It

I have been thinking about my last post in which (taking a leaf from Mark Bauerlein) I questioned the emphasis we put on quantity of peer-reviewed publications as the primary determinant of who will be recognized as a scholar worthy of tenure. Publications become a kind of currency traded for a safe job – a currency that is suffering from inflation.

December 19, 2011

I have been thinking about my last post in which (taking a leaf from Mark Bauerlein) I questioned the emphasis we put on quantity of peer-reviewed publications as the primary determinant of who will be recognized as a scholar worthy of tenure. Publications become a kind of currency traded for a safe job – a currency that is suffering from inflation.

But after reading the comments, I want to clarify my position: I think doing research has real value. I think sharing it also has real value. I only have a problem when scholars publish primarily to demonstrate that they are productive scholars, not as a means of discovering something new and sharing it. The trouble is that we expect corporations to organize the publishing of our work and we count on libraries to buy it back. Because of the way we organize this activity, we let corporations have the power to determine which research matters (and which scholars deserve tenure) and – to pay for that endorsement – they get to keep it as their intellectual property.

This has had unintended consequences. Libraries used to own books and journals. Because they owned them, they could share them among as many people as they wanted (so long as copies weren’t made; since libraries were reluctant to loan issues of journals, they negotiated the amount of copying that would be considered fair use and agreed to pay publishers for any copies shared beyond that amount). Now libraries increasingly rent temporary access to research publications or (as that grows increasingly unaffordable) we purchase articles one at a time for the cost of a printed book in order to give them to one library user, with no right to share it.

So when I say we cannot afford all this productivity, I mean we cannot afford this massive transfer of intellectual property, which entails increasing demands to create more content that can be monetized and made artificially scarce – because that’s how the system works. When knowledge is created primarily to advance individual careers and corporate profits, yet is by design limited to those who can pay for access, we’re not advancing knowledge. We’re just creating property that we trade for personal recognition.

You could argue that the research itself is too arcane and specialized, or that academics should be doing something more socially useful. I’m not making those arguments. What I am saying is that scholars who feel pressure to publish when they have nothing compelling to say shouldn’t be forced to do so, and publishers shouldn’t be given the job of deciding who gets tenure. This procedure supports a system that once made research available but now (because of the volume and the cost) makes our research inaccessible to most people.

That’s tragic.

I felt I should expand on what I said last week because I do feel research is important. It’s valuable to pursue questions not knowing in advance if they will be useful to anyone or not. And it’s valuable for students to be taught by faculty members who are active scholars, who model and encourage curiosity and train students in the intellectual means of satisfying it with integrity.

J. J. Cohen at In the Middle, a medieval studies blog, and Steve Mentz at The Bookfish (cousin of the Babel Fish?) both critique Bauerlein’s argument and press for a wider dissemination of research. That’s precisely right. As Metz writes:

We humanities scholars work very hard creating the products of our research, which mostly means writing articles and books, and in some cases also building web-interfaces or curating exhibitions or similar things. But when the thing is in print we mostly stop working on it. We mostly don’t think it’s our jobs to make sure that the work gets into wider circulation: we off-shore that job to journals and presses, which mostly don’t have strong publicity departments anymore, even if they once did. Maybe what we need isn’t less scholarship, or even better scholarship, but better press.

. . . and could I just add, a free press? Free as in speech and free as in kittens – because yes, publishing takes resources, but those resources would be much better invested if the fruits of research could be shared widely, not available only to people who happen to be affiliated with institutions that spends millions of dollars to provide limited access, but just for its membership.

I was intrigued by an article cited by Cohen and was happy when a friend sent me an email with a lengthy quote from that article, because I think it’s really important.

. . . teachers would not become better teachers if they stopped doing research, and, most emphatically, students would be not be well served if their teachers simply taught. I come to this position despite my sympathy for some of Bauerlein’s points because I believe that the premises behind his case are flawed, and, more important, because the likely consequences for following his recommendations would be disastrous.

. . . the American invention of combining teaching and research in a single institution and even in a single person is—particularly in the case of the humanities—an ingenious way of disseminating, in a strictly non-ideological and in fact rigorously apolitical way, some attitudes that were once considered characteristically American: a respectful interest in the past, an irreverent attitude toward authority, a willingness to question received wisdom, a confidence that one can use one’s own reason to determine the truth. But perhaps the most profound message implicitly imparted to students by a teacher-researcher is that there is another way of approaching the world, another way of thinking and evaluating and speaking, than the one that passes as common sense. Students might be hard pressed to explain why, but they benefit from the fact that their teachers—people they see and interact with on a regular basis— are dedicated to a practice of scholarship that, in its highest form, commands universal respect. A student can learn no more valuable lesson than what it might be like to have such skills, to think in such a way, and to speak with such authority; and there is no more efficient and effective way of learning this lesson than by being exposed to people who embody it. A pedagogy disconnected from research might be a pleasant experience, but a pedagogy connected in this way to research can aspire to be a transformative one.

Though I am not sure I agree that this combination is uniquely American – I don’t know the basis of that claim – I want to jump up and down and cheer the rest of it, because it’s why I’m a librarian and why I think libraries and the things students and their teachers do in them really matters.

These two paragraphs are from Geoffrey Gault Harpham’s article, “Why We Need the 16,772nd Book on Shakespeare,” published in Qui Parle in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue, pages 109-116. This journal isn’t available at my library. It’s not available in a lot of libraries. Anyone who cares to can link to and comment on Mark Bauerlein’s essay and report. He wants people to think about his argument, and he made it public. Far fewer people will have a chance to read Harpham’s response. And sadly, most libraries these days are spending so much on subscriptions that hardly any will be in a position to purchase and share a copy of the 16,772nd book on Shakespeare.

That’s why it’s not enough to value doing research, though it is, indeed, enormously valuable. We need to value sharing it, too.


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