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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Becca Rothfeld

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and...

4 replies on “Do Academic Articles Need Wide Audiences?”

  1. Not mentioned as to why few laymen read academic articles is the impenetrable, obscure jargon including acronyms, that a particular academic field uses. While practical because such jargon serves as a shortcut for those in the know, it does nothing to help the layman understand what is being written.

  2. the demand that academic work be publicly accessible is nothing more or less than the demand that the academy go away, by being forced to play by the rules of anyone but the very specific and deliberately narrow forms of qualification that the academy is based on. nothing stops academics from talking with and writing for the public, and despite the very loud cant, the number of academics who do this is extremely large. we become academics by trading our lives for a very thin and otherwise useless form of qualification that deems us “experts” in our fields. That expertise is precisely meant to give us, and nobody else, the right and the responsibility to determine what “counts” for us–for us and for nobody else. Demands that we subject that expertise to some nebulous public tribunal is, simply, the disparagement and discounting of exactly the expertise that is the only thing our professions are. It is no surprise that among those who LEAST frequently demand that academic work be publicly legible are successful senior academics who write both for the public AND within their disciplines, because they see the anti-intellectualism that the call to “make it public” is. Nothing stops us from being public when we want to. and the whole point of academic qualification and academic freedom is to do what we think is important, not what others think is important.

  3. This article misses a critical point. At most colleges and universities, two related trends work to the detriment of the institution’s students. First, would-be professors are evaluated primarily on their ability to produce these sorts of articles, while teaching ability ranks a very distant second or even third, As a result, teaching skills suffer, and the ranks of tenured faculty are populated by far too many people who are mediocre teachers at best, and terrible teachers at worst. Yet they’ve all been granted an extraordinary degree of job security, and their students will suffer for decades. The second trend is that more and more of the teaching load has been turned over to adjunct faculty and contract lecturers who are grossly underpaid and have no job security. None of this is good for students, and it perpetuates an environment where a few very bright people work in great luxury at the expense of students who don’t get much value for their increasingly high tuition bills. This situation is especially outrageous at public colleges and universities, where taxpayers foot a significant part of the bill.

  4. Well my blog posts may not be particularly academic..but they do get read! Of course we need to people to get deep down in the arts; this everything must do something is.. well even cavemen made paintings on walls!

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