The Research Bust

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Professor Mark Bauerlein decided to study the impact of literary research — and he found next to none:

Of 13 research articles published by current SUNY-Buffalo professors in 2004, 11 of them received zero to two citations, one had five, one 12. Of 23 articles by Georgia professors in 2004, 16 received zero to two citations, four of them three to six, one eight, one 11, and one 16.

Books performed better, but not enough when we consider how much more labor goes into a monograph. A 2000 book on Gerard Manley Hopkins collected four citations in eight relevant books on the poet published from 2007 to 2010. A 2003 book on Thomas Hardy garnered one citation in 16 relevant books published from 2007 to 2010. Of eight books published by Vermont professors from 2002 to 2005, four of them received zero to 10 citations in subsequent essays, and four received 11 to 20 (four of the top five were studies in film).

There are, of course, some breakout items. One book by an Illinois professor collected 82 citations in essays, another one 57. But in assessing the system, calculating its full costs and impact, we shouldn’t let the few instances of abundant notice eclipse the others. If a department produces six books in one year, each one the product of four years of labor by each author, and only one of them attracts significant attention, we should set that one book on the benefit side and 24 years of labor on the cost side. The unfortunate conclusion is that the overall impact of literary research doesn’t come close to justifying the money and effort that goes into it.
If a professor who makes $75,000 a year spends five years on a book on Charles Dickens (which sold 43 copies to individuals and 250 copies to libraries, the library copies averaging only two checkouts in the six years after its publication), the university paid $125,000 for its production. Certainly that money could have gone toward a more effective appreciation of that professor’s expertise and talent. We can no longer pretend, too, that studies of Emily Dickinson are as needed today, after three decades have produced 2,007 items on the poet, as they were in 1965, when the previous three decades had produced only 233.

This leads Walter Russell Mead to conclude that our universities today look a lot like the monasteries in the time of Henry VIII: vulnerable targets for a hungry state.

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