Knowledge Overload

With so many good scholarly books going unread, and good conference papers unheard, it's time to rethink how we share information in academe, writes Ken Coates.

March 23, 2009

Coping with the deluge of information is a major challenge for students, scholars, librarians and the general public. After all, with thousands of online newspapers, blogs, and academic journals, Google Books digitizing millions of titles, massive amounts of information coming online each day, major innovations in content management, and the ubiquitous impact of e-mail, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other new technologies, we find ourselves awash in petabytes of information of widely varying quality.

While we struggle to accommodate Web 2.0 and all of its implications, however, we are paying too little attention to another reality of our time: that the traditional ways of disseminating knowledge have grown well beyond our capacity to assimilate information. There is scarcely a field of academic inquiry that has not experienced massive growth in the past three decades. Few scholars even attempt to stay current in their broad discipline; most operate, sometimes in a near panic to keep up, in sub-disciplines, if not sub-sub-disciplinary fields. Those in multi-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary areas of inquiry face even more profound challenges.

When I entered the academy in the mid-1970s, it was quite possible to keep up with major developments in my sub-discipline of Canadian history. Each book, even in a distant area of Canada’s past, was worth noting, if not reading, and the handful of academic journals in the field were easily accommodated. Now, the profound growth of scholarly output has made it a formidable challenge to try to stay current, forcing many of us to retreat into narrow fields of inquiry, in my case northern Canadian and Aboriginal history.

Many academics have responded to the challenges by being more focused and, ironically, by reading less than in the past. After all, with professional rewards focused on productivity rather than receptivity, many realize that additional publications are more important career-wise than keeping up with the journal literature and reading the latest academic books, save for those germane to their current research. Now, of course, with online material expanding exponentially, the task of staying current has become that much more difficult.

But before we attribute the intellectual explosion to the Internet and digitization, we need to realize that the scale of academe has grown well past the point of saturation. Consider not the material available through new technologies, but focus instead on the old-knowledge systems: academic journals, books and conferences. The proliferation of journals has proven simply remarkable, providing numerous venues for scholarly dissemination (and producing an unhappy debate about the list of top-tier publications, impact factors, citation numbers and the like). The list of scholarly books grows seemingly exponentially – although the sales of these same volumes have been hit severely by declining library budgets, soaring costs and a flooded market among penurious academics.

And then there are the conferences. For those academics with professional development funds at their disposal, admittedly a more select group this year, there are dozens if not hundreds of professional meetings. They range from tiny workshops to national disciplinary sessions, from quiet retreats at vacation hot-spots to cattle-call mega-conferences. The attractions are obvious: a chance to network with academic colleagues, exposure to the brightest minds in the field, an opportunity to try out new ideas, book fairs and social time with like-minded thinkers.

There are brilliant conferences, where stunning ideas are introduced and where academe is at its very best. There are boondoggle conferences, which attract many registrants, few attendees, and produce little of scholarly merit. Most are in the former category and most scholars approach these events with seriousness of purpose and professional commitment. But even here, there are abundant signs that the scale of the academic operations has vastly exceeded our individual and collective capacity to assimilate and disseminate scholarly information.

Consider a major sub-disciplinary meeting in political science meeting, held recently in New York City. A junior colleague from my university attended and asked for advice on picking the most appropriate sessions. The online program was staggeringly large, running to more than 185 pages. The event lasted for four days, with sessions running, at 1 hour and 45 minute intervals, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Almost 50 sessions ran concurrently, with an average of four presenters per session. With five time slots, this meant that there were close to 250 sessions and some 1,000 papers per day, or a total of 4,000 scholarly presentations. This was an impressive conference. A quick review of the presenter lists revealed the presence of top scholars in the field, with contributors coming from around the world.

Intellectually, the conference offered a wealth of opportunities. Paring the massive list of possibilities down to a manageable selection proved extremely difficult, even with access to a convenient online feature that produced a personalized program. An initial run of preferred sessions revealed a minimum of three sessions per time slot, making the final decision very difficult. By any measure, this meeting had the potential to be a challenging and impressive intellectual experience.

Of course, the execution proved much different than the promise. The same math would suggest that, with 4,000 paper-givers and perhaps another 1,000 others attending, that there would be approximately 100 people at each session (varying according to the speakers, topic and collective interest). The sessions my colleague attended attracted small audiences, typically around 20 people and sometimes many fewer. By the time that the chair’s introduction and the commentator’s contributions were added to the presentations, there was rarely time for more than a handful of questions. The tightly packed schedule – only 15 minutes between sessions – restricted opportunities for follow-on conversations. The debate and exchange that one hopes for in academic sessions was episodic rather than commonplace.

Given that this conference was devoted to my colleague’s sub-discipline, it is not a stretch to suggest than 50 percent of all of the papers related somehow to her teaching, professional and research interests. So, back to the math quickly. Assume that papers were collected from these selected presentations – some 2,000 in total. It would take, realistically, approximately one hour to do justice to each contribution. The time frame is daunting. Two thousand hours represents the equivalent of 50 weeks of full-time reading, clearly an unachievable number. So, let’s reduce this to a mere 10 percent of the papers, or 400 in total, and a more “manageable” 10 weeks of full-time reading. Allow for some speed-reading – half an hour per paper instead of an hour – and the time frame is compressed to a mere five weeks of reading.

The point is obvious, simple and telling. A scholar cannot begin to do justice to the intellectual potential of an academic conference by attending the event. In this instance, assuming full-time attendance over four days (which would be an accomplishment given New York City’s many fine attractions), my colleague could attend only 20 sessions and hear only 80 papers – a full enough slate but representing only 2 percent of the fare on display at this intellectual buffet. Nor, realistically, could one person ever collect and read more than a small percentage of the total academic output from this one gathering. And this is only one conference in one year, only a tiny drop of water in the floodwaters of the contemporary academy.

So, in our haste to prepare ourselves for Academe 2.0, let’s recognize that the old analogue academe has already overwhelmed our capacity to gather, read and assimilate the research, analysis and collected wisdom of our age. Wading through hundreds of conference programs, scanning (thankfully now electronically) thousands of journal indexes, and struggling with hundreds of book catalogues – let alone finding the time to read all of the relevant material -- has us already falling well short of staying truly current.

There are those who argue that the proliferation of scholarly output is a case of bad writing driving out good, and that we should turn to the best journals and the best university presses as gatekeepers for what truly matters. I am not in that camp, having long-ago realized that insight and inspiration can come from many quarters, that some of the big name venues are more conservative than courageous intellectually, and that we need to let as many scholars as possible find their voice.

But there is a fundamental problem here that needs to be addressed. Look at this issue from the other side. A significant number of articles, including many published in small circulation periodicals, are never cited by anyone. Think, too, of the conferences papers that fail to attract meaningful audiences, the journals that have tiny circulations and very small readerships, and the fact that most academic books are published in press runs of under 1,000 copies, despite the growth in the number of academics and university and college libraries. Put bluntly, we are researching without having an impact, speaking without being heard and writing without being read. Furthermore, our tenure and promotion procedures reward publication more than they do awareness of the field, thus pushing up conference attendance, and journal and book submissions.

There may well be a convergence possible between Academe 1.0 and Academe 2.0. New technologies certainly do find things faster and share them more broadly. Digitized materials are readily assembled and moved from producers to libraries to end-users. But there is a major impediment to improvement in this regard: the capacity to read. No one has yet found a system that will truly allow us to assimilate new research more effectively. And so, we read indexes rather than journals, abstracts rather than papers, review essays rather than books. Awash in a sea of academic discourse and analysis, we look desperately for an intellectual life-raft, all the while feverishly seeking to add to the accumulated scholarly wisdom ourselves.

It is time to take a very deep breath and to step well back from our current approach to academic dissemination and publication. Consider that New York conference. Would the discipline and the practitioners not have been better served if there were three or four large concurrent sessions, each involving the key and most innovative thinkers in their field, rather than a vast proliferation of tiny sessions? But how many colleges and universities will provide travel funds, or even partial support, only for scholars who are giving a paper? And do we, in the world of Web 2.0, really need to constantly add to the number of published – and sadly unread – academic journals and books. Can we not elevate the scholarship of synthesis and interpretation back to the highest rank of professional inquiry, recognizing the remarkable talent needed to bring together in a readily digestible form the accumulated insights of thousands of scholars?

The irony in all of this is that it is academic career and advancement requirements, more than faculty preferences, which are driving the current pattern of academic dissemination. New doctorates, eager for a place on the tenure track, work like crazy to get into the right conferences and journals. Recently hired faculty know that tenure rests on getting the right hits in the right journals and, maybe, getting their dissertation published as a book. Tenured faculty know that merit and final promotion – indeed, their personal standing in the field – rests on continued and even accelerated publication output.

We have collectively created the equivalent of an academic monsoon over the past three decades, with no change in the forecast for the coming years. Without a major reconsideration of how we share and use information, how we keep up with the field, and how we recognize academic accomplishment, we will continue to add to the floodwaters, all the while spending less attention on whether or not anyone reads our work, listens to our presentations, or appreciates our professional contributions. Academe 2.0 offers tools to build more effective dikes and even to regulate the flow. But we need to realize that the lakes at the end of the bloated academic rivers – our faculty, researchers and students – have finite capacity, in terms of time and ability to assimilate information. Controlling the scholarly input is crucial to ensuring that we actually learn from and about each other, and ensuring that our academic work truly makes a difference.


Ken Coates is professor of history and dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Waterloo.


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