Towards peak scholarship

If American academia has just passed its peak, perhaps we might also experience peak scholarship.  That is, the amount of research produced will plateau, then decline in the near future.

How could this happen?  Through several mechanisms.  Please note that these are initial thoughts, a gesture towards future investigation.

First, the adjunctification of the professoriate: adjuncts have no research expectations, little institutional support, and, often, no time to conduct and publish research.  One observer notes:

“We have lost an entire generation of scholarship because of this,” Debra Leigh Scott, an adjunct activist and documentary filmmaker, told me. “Adjunct contracts not only drive professors into poverty, it makes it next to impossible for them to do the kind of scholarship they have trained an average of ten years to do.”

Just Enough ResearchSimply put, America may be producing a shrinking proportion of active scholars.  If we cease growing the total number of professors, both tenure-track and adjunct, that will mean a smaller number of scholars producing research.  Unless their roles are restructured, they cannot publish more individually.

Second, institutions facing enrollment pressure may not be able to support their faculty’s publishing at today’s levels.  We may already be seeing this happening in law schools.  Campuses laying off faculty will likely see fewer articles and books coming from the remaining population.  Institutions reducing research support and professional development funding: the same.

Third, Great Recession era financial and political pressures on the federal government have reduced its research funding.  This is especially felt in the sciences.  For example,  “Today, the resources available to the NIH are estimated to be at
least 25% less in constant dollars than they were in 2003.”  That same source argues that decreased funding will force scientists to spend more time competing for support and therefore spending less time actually doing research.

Fourth, one form of open access publishing could push downwards on the amount of material.  Gold open access, where authors (or their funders) pay for the publication process, might reduce contributions from scholars in middle- and lower-tiered institutions, if costs are high enough. This could also limit publications from a younger generation in grad school (source). Financially challenged institutions might have to spend even more money to administer gold OA funding  (source).  (There’s been discussion of this for several years: Scholarly Kitchen, Martin Weller)  NB: this problem might not have too much impact if only 5% of open access journals use the gold system (source).

Fifth, the chronic cost problem – publishers charging ever more money for journals and monographs – may finally run into an institution’s ability to fund its libraries.  Reduced acquisition budgets could trigger a downward spiral in publishers’ output.

How could we track this?  A longitudinal look at Ulrich’s might give us a sense, or Web of Science might serve as a useful proxy for the entire field.

If this is right, and we’re about to see a peak followed by decline in American scholarly output, what are the implications?  A reduction in scholarship is surely a blow to the public good.  Perhaps it will trigger a widening split between faculty who primarily conduct research and those who mostly teach.  Maybe non-US academia – i.e., the rest of the planet – will continue to grow their scholarly output, and the total will be unchanged.  Or an American government concerned about innovation could decide to reinvest in academic research.

I hope this hypothesis is wrong. What are your thoughts?

 

(thanks to Don Waters and Ceredwyn for helping me think through this topic; photo by Jeffrey Zeldman)

 

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6 Responses to Towards peak scholarship

  1. Joe Murphy says:

    A couple of knee-jerk reactions:

    1) Given the common knowledge that some high percentage of publications are never cited (which I’m having trouble connecting quickly to an actual study), how big a “blow to the public good” is this really?

    2) Put a more positive way, if pressure to publish _something_ were to decrease, might the research product improve? Might communicating the value of research to the general public become a more valued skill, and could we see more faculty taking on roles as public intellectuals?

    Yeah, I know, as long as I’m wishing, how about a pony?

    3) On a more negative side, I’ve started to hear anecdotes about publication records being used as hiring criteria even for adjunct faculty. That would suggest an increase in small and graduate conferences, festschrifts and other edited volumes of varying quality, etc.

    4) The periodicals crisis has not, so far, lead to a decrease in journal publication; after 25 years, it seems unlikely to start now. The Big Deal has been effective at using high-value titles to insulate low-value titles from economic pressures. We may be seeing more libraries and consortia walking away from Big Deals, or they may be hitting the limits of the publisher’s ability to throw in small titles for free, but that’s not my overall perception. Maybe with a 1-2 punch of fewer submitted articles and fewer paying libraries… but then again, if Gold OA provides another revenue stream for the small journals, the publisher might be willing to keep the package going.

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  2. Pingback: Have Americans reached peak scholarship?

  3. Great thoughts, Joe.

    To #1: ouch, and yes, maybe so.

    #2: a shift from quantity to quality?

    #3: really? That’s pretty harsh.

    #4: good point.

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  4. Reading this, my questions are about venue, ritual, and quality.

    In the age of the web, are we counting paper-journal publications? Why?

    How many of these publications are of any sort of lasting value? A decline of volume in an obsolete venue low value missives … is this a problem?

    Not sure what is measured here.

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    • Greetings, Preston.
      Yes, we are indeed counting paper journal publications because so many still appear.
      Lasting value: ah, I was addressing quantity, rather than quality. Do you think we’ll see a kind of Darwinian process whereby weaker scholarship is winnowed out?

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  5. Pingback: One scenario for scholarly research | Bryan Alexander

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