728 x 90

Why Academics Are Writing Junk That Nobody Reads

Why Academics Are Writing Junk That Nobody Reads

Professors usually spend about 3-6 months (sometimes longer) researching and writing a 25-page article to submit to an academic journal. And most experience a twinge of excitement when, months later, they open a letter informing them that their article has been accepted for publication, and will therefore be read by…

… an average of ten people.

Yes, you read that correctly. The numbers reported by studies are pretty bleak:

  • About 82 percent of articles published in the humanities are not even cited once for five years after they are published.
  • Of those articles that are cited, only 20 percent have actually been read.
  • Half of academic papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, peer reviewers, and journal editors.

So what’s the reason for this madness? Why does the world continue to be subjected to just under 2 million academic journal articles each year?

Well, the main reason is money and job-security. The goal of all professors is to get tenure, and right now, tenure continues to be awarded  based in part on how many peer-reviewed publications they have. Tenure committees treat these publications as evidence that the professor is able to conduct mature research.

Sadly, however, many academic articles today are merely exercises in what one professor I knew called “creative plagiarism” rearrangements of previous research with a new thesis appended on to them.

Another reason is increased specialization in the modern era, which is in part due to the splitting up of universities into various disciplines and departments that each pursue their own logic.

One unfortunate effect of this specialization is that the subject matter of most articles make them inaccessible to the public, and even to the overwhelming majority of professors. (Trust me: most academics don’t even want to read their peers’ papers.) Some of the titles in the most recent issues of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion—which proclaims itself as “the top academic journal in the field of religious studies”—serve as evidence:

  • “Dona Benta’s Rosary: Managing Ambiguity in a Brazilian Women’s Prayer Group”
  • “Death and Demonization of a Bodhisattva: Guanyin’s Reformulation within Chinese Religion”
  • “Brides and Blemishes: Queering Women’s Disability in Rabbinic Marriage Law”

Thus, increased specialization has led to increased alienation between not only professors and the general public, but also between the professors themselves.

All of this is very unfortunate. Ideally, the great academic minds of a society should be put to work for the sake of building up that society and addressing its problems. Instead, most Western academics today are using their intellectual capital to answer questions that nobody’s asking on pages that nobody’s reading.

What a waste.

A version of this article was published at Intellectual Takeout on October 26, 2016.

Image credit: HippoPx, CC0 1.0



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *


  • Avatar
    January 7, 2023, 3:26 am

    Peer reviewed outhouse paper

  • Avatar
    C. Paul Barreira
    January 7, 2023, 11:44 pm

    The issue is vatly more complicated than suggested here. True, much is needlessly obscure. Then, again, as a religious historian and as a keen reader of "The Journey to the West" the question relating to Guanyin is intriguing. "Ambiguity" and "queering", by contrast tend to imply an ideological purpose; they don’t have to, especially "ambiguity" but it is a tendency.

    More importantly, perhaps, learning and adding to knowledge by means of scholarship implies risk, the project in the humanities or sciences may come to nothing. Rare, but the risk remains in the pursuit of pure knowledge. Knowledge may prove efficacious for society but in itself need not. In itself, history (my discipline) serves little social purpose but learning of the human experience in the past may provide for readers some indication of the immense complexity and variety of predicaments and circumstances of our homo sapiens. There may be no right answers, but, as too much produced in universities and elsewhere reveals, there is a marvelous miscellany of wrong answers. Hence the importance of method and a commitment to truthfulness on the part of the practitioner.

    • Avatar
      grug@C. Paul Barreira
      January 11, 2023, 4:55 pm

      "In itself, history (my discipline) serves little social purpose"

      People with this attitude, people like you Mr. Barreira, should never be allowed anywhere near a classroom.

      • Avatar
        January 12, 2023, 5:05 pm

        History is my field as well, and I can confirm that what the initial commenter has said is absolutely true. To be frank, the areas where history would be most helpful do not care for history, and in many cases nor do they care for humanities as a whole. Our job now is to analyze the past and figure out how we got here, while documenting our present for future historians to understand the same question. In our current capitalist system we cannot be seen as anything of social value as we do not generate monetary value for any company, nor do we generate tangible value for essentially anyone. The historians that looked to change the world or perhaps improve the current situation didn’t go into history, they studied international relations and political science. While historians are able to do both, we are rarely called upon.

      • Avatar
        January 13, 2023, 12:24 pm

        To imply that someone has no right to be teaching, based on one fragment of one sentence, is another of the things that is very wrong in academia (where I spent eleven years). History betrays the ‘sediment’ of power structures of old, for example, telling us important things about the present. That _is_ socially useful, but of no benefit (quite the opposite) to the economic and political powers that be. This is broadly what the _whole sentence_ that you glibly quote out of context is saying @grug.

        The paper on Guanyin sounds interesting to me too, but point taken.

        I recall presenting a research project outline and the emeritus professor who formed part of the assessment panel sneering that the References included "…a lot of books…". Left unsaid: cite some of the first few papers listed by metrics, in Google Scholar, and your ‘research’ is done.

        The whole thing is a racket and a very profitable one.

      • Avatar
        April 8, 2024, 12:52 pm

        My sentiments exactly, Sir! Shall we tell him why?

    • Avatar
      Tosin@C. Paul Barreira
      January 13, 2023, 5:19 am

      You are wrong that history serves little social purpose.

      While the study of history may not have an immediate practical application, it does serve a number of important social purposes.

      Firstly, history helps us to understand the past and how it shapes the present and the future. It helps us to understand the origins of political, social, and economic systems, and how they have evolved over time. This knowledge is essential for understanding current issues and making informed decisions about the future.

      Secondly, history promotes critical thinking and the ability to analyze and interpret information. It encourages individuals to question assumptions and to consider multiple perspectives, which is important for making informed decisions and participating in democratic processes.

      Thirdly, history helps to promote cultural understanding and appreciation. It helps us to understand and appreciate the diversity of human experience and the different cultures, customs, and traditions that have shaped our world.

      Fourthly, history is essential for the preservation of memory, culture, and heritage. It helps to ensure that the experiences, achievements, and struggles of previous generations are not forgotten and that they can be passed on to future generations.

      In conclusion, while history may not have an immediate practical application, it does serve a number of important social purposes such as helping us to understand the past, promoting critical thinking, promoting cultural understanding, and preserving memory, culture, and heritage.

      • Avatar
        Hugh Engstrom@Tosin
        January 13, 2023, 7:08 pm

        Bravo and thanks for your comments.

      • Avatar
        April 8, 2024, 12:57 pm

        Well said, Sir. I do believe that our past history, if studied and considered in like circumstances can guide and effect important decisions and outcomes today. Looking to our past with today's eyes can prevent terrible mistakes and help us do things in the right way today.

  • Avatar
    John Dolan
    January 12, 2023, 5:04 pm

    Most people with talent figured out long ago that the universities were dominated by admin (at the top), overcautious tenure-hunters and poor, gullible adjuncts who keep their faith far too long. Why would anyone with wit and invention want to join that wretched crowd? If you’ve ever been at a party, you can tell the academics from the comics, SFF or true-crime writers, graphic artists, and Substack creators. The academics will be the ones doing all the flinching, translating every joke into safe jargon, while the others riff on each other joyously.

  • Avatar
    January 13, 2023, 3:41 am

    Another example of this problem, from 2011: https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-research-bust.

    It’d be good to stop doing this, but the system continues to operate, like an automaton without the sense to stop.

  • Avatar
    Andrew Moravcsik
    January 18, 2023, 1:13 pm

    The problem is more complex and this really doesn’t capture what’s going on. Saying we should not write articles because most don’t get read is like sayIng we should not have small businesses because 90% fail. The whole point is that it’s new knowledge, so we cannot say ex ante who will produce it. Scholars are entrepreneurs in a world structured to encourage knowledge-production. It could be structured better, just like markets could be structured better, but failure is surely necessary—just as no one is anyone in the Silicon Valley start up world until they have failed. And for those of you who say you are working on meaningless stuff, well, that’s on you! It may or may not be true that we should adjust academic incentives to focus on different things, but making the profession less self-governing comes with its own costs. A world without academics with all those nitpicks rules would be one in which we would be—even more than we already are—condemned to live in a world of supported causal claims, off-the-cuff claims, and opinions or conjectures masquerading as evidence—like this article.


Posts Carousel

Latest Posts

Frequent Contributors