Sinking in a Sea of Words

By Malcolm, Noel | The Independent (London, England), July 21, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Sinking in a Sea of Words

Malcolm, Noel, The Independent (London, England)

What Is The greatest threat to academic life today? Most university teachers, when asked this question, will start talking about cutbacks and underspending. They are wrong. The greatest threat is overproduction. A tide of unnecessary publications is rising through our universities and libraries; it is threatening to drown real intellectual life, and nobody knows how to stop it.

This year more than 80,000 new books will be published in this country. In the US, the figure will be more than 160,000. Not all of these are academic, but academic publishing is where the rise in quantity is matched most startlingly by the decline in readers per book. The books are bought by libraries, not readers. This is even more true in the case of academic journals (the form of publishing which, thanks to its resistance to the laws of economics, succeeded in making Robert Maxwell rich). It is estimated that 200,000 academic journals are published in the English language, and that the average number of readers per article is five.

What is generating this uncontrollable flood? Two factors, I think. One is a very long-term trend in academia: the increasing specialisation of research as the same fields are picked over in ever-narrowing detail. Where real research is concerned, this is no bad thing, especially in the natural sciences where it leads to a genuine accumulation of knowledge. But most of the books and articles being published today - in the humanities, at least - are not presenta- tions of hitherto unknown facts. They are unoriginal interpretative rehashes of what is already known: go through their footnotes and you will see the same familiar citations being stirred round the bottom of the page like old bones in a much-used stock-pot.

These writings are the product of the second key factor: the pressure on academics to publish for career purposes. Gone are the days when one essential book plus one or two brilliant articles would guarantee a don's worth, or when a researcher could afford to devote seven years to an important project without publishing a thing. Today, jobs depend on publications - and not just jobs, but university department funding too, thanks to "research assessment exercises" totting up the "productivity" of the dons.

It is now common for departments to poach people with long lists of publications from elsewhere, just months before one of these exercises takes place, so that the new arrival's previous work can be added, quite spuriously, to the department's own battle honours.

Where is all this unnecessary work being published? Increasingly in journals catering only to tiny circles of mutually supportive specialists, who referee one another's articles, recommend them for publication, and demand that their university libraries subscribe to the journal in question. Fifty years ago, an English don who had written an article about, say, the poems of Robert Herrick would have sent it to Essays in Criticism or the Review of English Studies or the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, where it would have had to compete against other articles on a whole range of topics. Today, it would probably be published in a Bulletin of Herrick Studies, and read by half a dozen other Herrickologists. This is the academic equivalent of vanity publishing: tenure publishing.

I am not exaggerating when I say that this flood is eroding academic intellectual life. It has become impossible for anyone to maintain an overview of a single, even fairly narrow subject - let alone a discipline as a whole. When I began work on a PhD on the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the late 1970s, it was possible for me to keep up with almost everything new that was being published on Hobbes in Britain, the US and western Europe, while devoting most of my time to the great body of previous writing by and about him.

I could also keep up with most of the important new work in a range of related fields: Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza, 17th century English theology.

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