Do Academic Articles Need Wide Audiences?

(image via flickr.com/centralasian)
(image via flickr.com/centralasian)

The gap between academia and the general public looms wider than ever, according to an article in The Straits Times. The newspaper reports that only 82% of academic articles in the humanities are ever cited — and estimates, even more alarmingly, that most scholarly articles appearing in peer-reviewed journals attract a meager audience of around ten readers.

There are several factors that contribute to scholarship’s dwindling readership, the Straits Times suggests. Most peer-reviewed journals are prohibitively expensive for those of us without institutional affiliations. (After all, who can afford to pay something in the range of $30 for every interesting article that surfaces on JSTOR?) But the prime culprit, the article argues, is lack of general interest: academic writing is specialized and inaccessible, focusing on issues that bear little attraction for the layman. Where scholars of yore often doubled as public intellectuals, contributing works of long-lasting significance to publications like fabled The Partisan Review, today’s academics appeal to a narrow audience of like-minded professors and researchers, preferring to publish in niche scholarly journals that most of us have never heard of. 

The article goes on to argue — rightly, I think — that academics should strive to effect greater engagement with the public sphere. And several initiatives to this effect have launched recently: the NEH recently announced that it would be providing funding for scholars to write books aimed at a broader public.

The NEH program is admirable: I think it’s true that academics should strive to participate more actively in their communities, if only to make the relevance of their work obvious to a wider range of people and to facilitate cross-disciplinary connections that it’s difficult to establish from within a more insular sphere. But I think it is a mistake to intimate that research can be worthwhile only in virtue of its reach or tangible impact.

The Straits Times mistakenly assumes that the main point of a research project is always the end product. Often, the crux of scholarly undertaking is dialogue along the way — and dialogue, be it interpersonal or at a talk or conference, can have broader effects on a wider community.

The cultural push towards artifacts with obvious, immediate utility is symptomatic of a culture that fails to place sufficient value on humanistic or artistic pursuits, many of which don’t have tangible or quantifiable benefits. For one thing, quality of audience is often more important than quantity: a Joyce scholar may want to have a detailed conversation about a particular passage with other experts in the field. For another, it’s not clear what sorts of concrete change scholarship in the humanities is supposed to precipitate. An article about a question in ethics may have “succeeded” if it encourages us to subject our lives to greater scrutiny. Not all worthwhile scholarship comes in the form of recommendations to policymakers.

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