I Am Cited, Ergo Sum

In fact, argues Peter C. Herman, the question for scholars should be “Who reads us, anyway?”

November 7, 2018

In a recent issue of Art Journal, the editor, Rebecca Brown, introduces a work of art -- really a computer program -- called CitationBomb by Zach Kaiser, intended to create a kind of “denial of service” attack on Google Scholar: “The more users do this, the more Google Scholar will become overflowed with citations. This will make it difficult for the algorithms to make sense of influence or impact.”

The overall point is to “devalue scholarly metrics,” as they represent in small the horrors of the neoliberal university. As Brown puts it, “what numerical value applies to achieving the arc of a compelling paragraph? … [It makes] manifest the un-usefulness of analytics … its profound, destructive force.”

Why are “analytics” so destructive? Kaiser explains that Google Scholar incentives “clickbait scholarship.” Meaning, since Google Scholar puts first the books or articles that get the most citations, it leads to a “winner take all” situation with scholarship. Only the articles that are cited often get cited at all, leaving all the other scholars in the dust.

But the real danger is that this trend supports the neoliberal university. Since money is often short, administrators “are told that they need to be strategic about how they steer their institutions. ‘Strategic,’ here, of course, is code for ‘market-oriented,’” writes Kaiser. Google Scholar, in sum, crushes individuality by applying the logic of the marketplace to scholarship. A book or an article is valued only by how many citations it gets, and that leads to funding decisions: areas that get a lot of citations get money, while those that don’t, don’t. Scholarship becomes a popularity contest, and that misses the fundamental point: “What algorithm measures the importance of the time spent sitting in front of a painting with a colleague, developing ideas and discussing the artist’s engagement with complex visual problems?”

All this sounds very noble, especially since most of us would agree that popularity should not be equated with quality. Miles Davis, after all, is better than Taylor Swift; Beethoven is better than Kanye West. But taking that perspective also gives us an excuse to look away from a very real problem confronting literary criticism: nobody reads this stuff anymore, anyway.

Losing Our Audience

The point was first driven home to me when I looked at Louis Menand’s introduction to a new edition of Lionel Trilling’s 1950 collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination. That was not a sexy or trendy book, as shown by such article titles as “Reality in America,” “The Function of the Little Magazine,” “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” and “Tacitus Now” (classical history always being a hot topic), alongside close readings of Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Keats.

And yet, as Louis Menand says in the introduction to the book, Trilling “made literary criticism matter to people who were not literary critics,” and the book sold like hotcakes: 70,000 copies in hardcover, over 100,000 in paperback. And that was in 1950! Can one possibly imagine a book of critical essays selling that number today?

True, occasionally a book on Shakespeare or Jane Austen will break through to a nonacademic audience. But in that rare instance, literary criticism is usually coupled with biography (e.g., Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World) or history (e.g., James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599). Most literary criticism books have print runs of a little more than 1,000, and they are sold primarily to libraries, where they sit, largely untouched.

But if it’s an old story that literary critics speak and write only for other literary critics, Google Scholar also shows that we are not even speaking to ourselves anymore. As an experiment, I decided that I would go back to the first 2010 issue of three top-tier literary journals -- PMLA, Critical Inquiry and American Literary History -- and one top-tier history journal, American Historical Review. To get published in any of them, you have to run a terrifying gauntlet of strict peer review, and fewer than 10 percent make it. So getting into those journals is a major achievement. But once in, how often do the articles get out? How often are they cited? I chose 2010 as I figured that would be long enough for an article to be read, absorbed and then included in another article. The results are utterly dismal.

Since theory still reigns, let’s take Critical Inquiry first. Two articles, D. A. Miller’s “Hitchcock's Hidden Pictures” and Daniel M. Gross’s “Defending the Humanities with Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872),” got the highest number of citations: 21 and 17 respectively. The others got anywhere from five to 14 citations. According to the latest MLA Guide to Periodicals, Critical Inquiry has an acceptance rate of 6.6 percent. I can’t imagine it was any higher in 2010. Yet, at most, only 17 people thought the articles in this issue worth mentioning.

PMLA does not fare any better, even though the journal gets sent to every member of the Modern Language Association, which in 2010 numbered 30,449. Despite that vastly higher circulation (today, Critical Inquiry has 2,000 subscribers), the citation numbers are roughly the same. One article has 13 citations, two have 12 and the rest between seven and eight.

American Literary History did only slightly better. One article had a grand total of 33 citations. On the other hand, one had three, another eight. Nor are the numbers much different when I turned to American Historical Review. The good news (I suppose) is that Harold Marcuse’s “Holocaust Memorials: The Emergence of a Genre” had the most citations of all the articles I checked. The bad news is the number: 47.

A distinguished literary historian once mordantly observed that he was tired of publishing books and articles with a readership in the low two figures. I did not realize at the time that he was not exaggerating.

The numbers, however, change significantly once we move into the STEM fields and economics. An article called “Regulatory T-cells exert checks and balances on self-tolerance and autoimmunity,” published in 2010 in Nature Immunology, was cited 961 times. Another -- perhaps more specialized -- piece, “Checkpoints in lymphocyte development and autoimmune disease,” has 282 citations. Shifting to American Economic Review, the numbers are not as high as Nature Immunology, but they are still much higher than what find for PMLA, etc. An article on hospital mergers netted 188 citations; another on the effect of the tsetse fly on African development has 155 citations.

Looking at those numbers, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the distaste for analytics and Google Scholar in the name of purity is a convenient way of not confronting an unpleasant truth: very, very few people read what we publish. Occasionally, a book or article will break through -- for example, Stephen Greenblatt’s 1988 book, Shakespearean Negotiations, has as of this writing 2,586 citations. But for the most part, we are talking numbers in the teens, often lower, and occasionally, none at all.

Such numbers have tremendous implications for the future of the humanities generally and literary studies in particular. The closing of an academic press, such as the University Press of New England or Duquesne University Press, is usually greeted with howls of how the bean counters don’t understand the cultural importance of what they do. But if hardly anybody reads what they publish -- one book on New England intellectuals and American identity published by the University Press of New England, for instance, netted a grand total of 12 citations -- then just how much of an impact do these books have?

Essentially, we have lost our audience, both inside and outside academe, and blaming neoliberalism is not going to change that fact. Because promotion decisions, especially at the more prestigious universities, are largely based on publication, we have created a system in which professors are driven to publish, but once published, for the most part, the book or article languishes unread in a library or on a server somewhere.

It could be said that scholarship isn’t a popularity contest, and counting up citations doesn’t measure how many people actually read the piece, or how personally enriching scholarship can be. Granted, but the whole point of scholarship is to add to the sum of human knowledge, to change the conversation, or at least, to make a contribution that others acknowledge. If nobody or hardly anybody cites the article, then what difference does it make?

It could also be said it has always been thus. Scholarship has never aimed at a mass audience, and one can name any number of books published in earlier eras that had miniscule readerships. Just how many people picked up the Latin commentaries written on Aristotle or the many books and sermons on biblical exegesis published during the 1500s and 1600s? Probably not many. But the difference is that early modern writers on abstruse topics had the culture’s support for what they did. Literary critics don’t anymore, which helps explain the plummeting number of students majoring in literature (my department is down 44 percent since 2005), and how people such as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker can get away with restructuring plans that eliminate humanities majors. And our numbers continue to dwindle, especially among elite liberal arts colleges. In the early 2000s, the humanities attracted roughly a third of all students. Now, they get only about a fifth.

I don’t have an answer for this problem, but I know that continuing to publish works that next to nobody reads is not going to help. For starters, we must figure out a way of reversing this trend and writing in a way that will make what we do matter to people outside our charmed circle. If we don’t, then it will be harder and harder to justify paying for the publication of books and articles that remain largely unread, and we are looking at the eventual extinction of literary studies.


Peter C. Herman is a professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University. This article was adapted from a piece published in the Telos blog.


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