Too Much Research

A controversial piece in last month’s Chronicle of Higher Education,, “We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research,” argues that “the amount of redundant, inconsequential, and outright poor research has swelled in recent decades, filling countless pages in journals and monographs.” The five authors, representing a variety of academic disciplines, point to increases in the numbers of journals, journal pages, and authors and decreases in average citation rates.

[I]nstead of contributing to knowledge in various disciplines, the increasing number of low-cited publications only adds to the bulk of words and numbers to be reviewed. Even if read, many articles that are not cited by anyone would seem to contain little useful information. The avalanche of ignored research has a profoundly damaging effect on the enterprise as a whole. Not only does the uncited work itself require years of field and library or laboratory research. It also requires colleagues to read it and provide feedback, as well as reviewers to evaluate it formally for publication. Then, once it is published, it joins the multitudes of other, related publications that researchers must read and evaluate for relevance to their own work. Reviewer time and energy requirements multiply by the year. The impact strikes at the heart of academe.

I think this assessment is generally on target, for my own field at least. What percentage of the articles in the typical academic journal does anybody read, let alone remember? How much of the research in any scientific field really adds value? Of course, search tools make it easier to find relevant information, so I’m not sure the point about writing literature reviews is all that compelling. Still, it does seem increasingly difficult to sort wheat from chaff.

I’m less impressed with the authors’ proposed solutions — limiting the number of publications that can be considered for promotion and tenure, making greater use of impact factors, and enforce tighter page restrictions. These strike me as superficial fixes. The main problem is the vast increase in the scale and scope of the “scientific” enterprise itself, almost all of it due to public funding. There are simply too many universities and institutes, too many research faculty, too many granting agencies, too much research money. It’s a self-perpetuating process, almost exclusively driven by supply-side considerations (who on earth “demands” the output of most English departments?). Some academic readers will be shocked by the claim that there’s “too much” research money, particularly in today’s austere climate. But I mean too much relative to some social optimum, not too much relative to what university professors want.

Why would we expect this kind of system to produce high-quality research? Perhaps it’s a miracle that any good work gets done at all.

Peter G. Klein is a Research Fellow, Associate Editor of The Independent Review, and Member of the Board of Advisors of the Center on Culture and Civil Society at the Independent Institute.
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