The Scandal of `Knowledge' Academics Publish, and Students Perish

By Page Smith. Page Smith, former provost of the University of California "Peoples History of the United States. ". Debbie Murphy helped prepare this article. | The Christian Science Monitor, February 25, 1991 | Go to article overview

The Scandal of `Knowledge' Academics Publish, and Students Perish


Page Smith. Page Smith, former provost of the University of California "Peoples History of the United States. ". Debbie Murphy helped prepare this article., The Christian Science Monitor


THE modern university has been criticized almost since its inception for its indifference to students. Periodically university presidents and critics of the university call for faculty members to take teaching more seriously. The presidents of Stanford and Harvard recently took their faculties to task for their neglect of teaching. Over the years none of these exhortations has had a noticeable effect. They are accompanied by reiterations that the primary function of a great university is research. What's needed, critics say, is a "better balance between teaching and research."

Few of these exhorters have seriously questioned the "publish or perish" canon that so distorts the educational mission of the "great universities." The issue is not that of achieving a "better balance between research and teaching," but of exposing the fallacies behind the insistence on publishing as a condition for promoting faculty. The most fundamental fallacy is the notion that any conscientiously done piece of research is by definition a significant contribution to knowledge. This is false.

Even if it were true that each little increment of research was a potentially useful addition to our knowledge in a field, the fact is our repositories of information are inundated by a flood of research. We are suffering in every disciplinary field from information overload. Research is driven, in the main, not by a passion for learning, but by the need-to-publish-in-order-to-be-promoted syndrome. In the face of what amounts to a public scandal, the pressures on academics to publish what is, in large part, mediocre or useless research increase rather than diminish.

How best to dramatize this situation so that long overdue reforms can begin? One way may be to demonstrate the high cost of the present system. There is general recognition in the US of the accelerating cost of a college education. Perhaps, if it can be shown that a great part of this huge expense is not only unnecessary but an impediment to education, the public may be sufficiently aroused to demand reform.

William Schaefer, a professor of literature at UCLA, recently reflected on his experience as editor of PMLA, the flagship journal of the Modern Language Association. Schaefer estimates that in a two-year period over 1,000 scholarly articles were submitted for publication - 500 a year. Only 50 were judged worthy of publication - about 5 percent. After reading this horror story, I thought to "cost out" the faculty time spent on research (what I term Faculty Research Time, FRT) for the 950 rejected articles).

If we calculate that each article took two-thirds of a faculty member's time for six months, and said faculty member's salary was $50,000 per year, we get a figure of $16,000 in Faculty Research Time per article. Multiplying $16,000 by 950 articles equals $15,400,000 worth of faculty time, time that is, in essence, taken away from students.

There are some 1,000 scholarly journals in the field of language and literature alone. Using the FRT formula for these 1,000, we get a figure of roughly $800 million plus estimated editorial costs of $250 million,for a total of more than a billion dollars.

Remember, these are costs associated with scholarly journals in one field of the humanities - albeit the largest field. If we apply Smith's Faculty Research Time formula to the thousands of journals in other areas of the humanities and social sciences, the billions in cost are compounded.

Appropriately included in the cost of scholarly journals is the expense to research libraries of "acquisitioning" and cataloging them. Research libraries are forced to pay extravagant charges to subscribe to scholarly journals. The average cost of subscriptions in the humanities, for example, rose from $90 in 1977 to $255 in 1989. In the social sciences it increased from $145 to $418 - about 280 percent. …

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