On the Profusion of Research Publications

Larry Spence
June 01, 1991

"There seems to be no study too fragmented, no hypothesis too trivial, no literature citation too biased or too egotistical, no design too warped, no mythology too bungled, no presentation of results too inaccurate, too obscure and too contradictory, no analysis too self-serving, no argument too circular, no conclusion too trifling or too unjustified, and no grammar and syntax too offensive for a paper to end up in print." That's the judgment of Drummond Rennie, senior editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

A "wonderful profusion of humbug," another scholar calls the effusion of papers in the humanities.

A 1986 survey by the American Council of Learned Societies of 5,385 scholars in the social sciences and humanities turned up the characterization of research publications as "ignorant drivel." One half of the scholars said they rarely found any article in their field of interest worth reading, and 60 percent said it was impossible to keep up with the gush of literature in their specialty.

The ebullition of scholarship produces some astounding numbers. In the physical sciences alone there are currently 40,000 journals publishing at a rate of one article every 35 seconds, 2,800 every day, and more than a million a year. Some 2,400 articles are published each year in sociology alone. In 1987, academic journals published over 500 articles on Shakespeare. Those numbers give some sense of swollen budgets and cramped stacks in academic libraries. They also mean decreases in time for working in the laboratory or with original sources for scholars faced with keeping up. Worst of all, the torrent erodes the system that ensures the quality of academic research.

Peer review is the quality control system of research. When a paper reporting a new idea, an experiment, or some other contribution to human knowledge is submitted to a scholarly journal, an editor sends it out to two or more experts in the field for evaluation. They can recommend rejection, changes, or publication. Those references are anonymous and they do this often onerous task for nothing.

When the system works, it is a marvel of altruism and economy. But huge volume breaks the dikes of discernment. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ellen K. Coughlin reports, "Authors and researchers have repeatedly complained and in some cases shown that referees tend to be prejudiced toward senior scholars and professors at leading research universities and towards theories and ideas that are currently fashionable in the discipline or with which they happen to agree.

J. Scott Armstrong, writing in The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, says that a professor who wishes to be published today must: not pick an important problem, not challenge existing beliefs, not obtain surprising results, not use simple methods, not provide full disclosure of method, sources, and findings, and not write clearly.

While only two out of every 10 papers submitted in the physical sciences get rejected, only two out of every 10 papers in the social sciences see print. But that high rate of rejection doesn't mean better quality. Lewis Anthony Dexter, a distinguished political scientist, once tallied up the rejection rate of the 80 papers he published in his career. Some were rejected 15 times, and the modal article was returned to him six times. Many of the papers with the highest rejections became classics in the field.

The majority of articles in this inundation go unread. When professors are hired, tenured, or promoted, their publications are counted. "There is pressure to publish, though there is virtually no interest in content," was the widely held view expressed by a respondent in the American Council of Learned Societies survey. But counting publications, on the faith that peer review has filtered the effluvium, encourages the flood: Scholars must publish with less thought and care in order to stand out as producers.

"The enemy of good teaching is not research, but rather the spirit that says that this is the only worthy or legitimate task for faculty members," concludes a 1985 report by the Association of American Colleges.

That spirit is an enemy also of good research. By identifying scholarship with publishing, universities have promoted a mediocrity that drowns the best ideas.

Larry D. Spence, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science in the College of the Liberal Arts. His essay first appeared in The Daily Collegian, a newspaper published by Penn State students, on October 30, 1989.

Last Updated June 01, 1991