Maybe academic publishing does have kind of a point, somewhat?

[I misread the linked article; please see comments for discussion.]

This piece by Sarah Kendzior on the pointlessness of academic publishing is making the rounds. I found myself at once objecting and feeling like I couldn’t object, and on further analysis, it came to seem to me that she was conflating two issues: academic overproduction and the narrowness of the academic audience. The two are not unrelated, because the goal of over production is obviously to appeal to other powerful academics who might deign to give you a job — and if that’s the only reason you’re producing, the state of the job market makes it a bad bet. I do not disagree with any of this, and in fact, I think one of the most deplorable things about academic overproduction is that it virtually guarantees that no one will read a given article (because there’s just too much to keep up with and anyway, that person also needs to overproduce and doesn’t have time to read anyone else’s stuff…).

I wish we could find a way to talk about these issues without throwing scholarly writing as such under the bus, though. I’ve generally written for a broader audience than most academics, and I’m lauded for my transcendent clarity (which weirdly doesn’t seem to help people reliably understand what I’m trying to say, but that’s a different post), so I’m probably living out something like Kendzior’s ideal of how to publish with integrity, etc. Nevertheless, it always rankles me when people seem to assume that there’s something inherently problematic about being a specialist and writing for other specialists. There are some ideas that can only really be developed effectively if you can assume that your audience is already mostly in your ballpark in terms of knowledge. The same goes with potshots at “jargon” — why is it illegitimate for a specialized group to have specialized vocabulary?

It’s almost certainly true that Peter Higgs, the Nobel-winning scientist, would not get a job under the present publishing regime, but I doubt his ground-breaking work was “accessible” to non-specialists — and so he also wouldn’t get a job under the type of regime Kendzior is gesturing toward either. Career-driven overproduction kills authentic intellectual work, but so does the demand for immediate intelligibility to non-specialists.

Now I admit my objection is somewhat “academic” insofar as there’s no danger that academic standards will spontaneously reverse themselves any time soon, but I think it’s important to be clear about what our goals really are — and to make sure that we’re not, for example, falling into the trap of repeating culture-war anti-academic tropes while fighting against injustices in academic hiring.

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6 Responses to “Maybe academic publishing does have kind of a point, somewhat?”

  1. Liana Silva Says:

    I readily admit that I am one of the people sharing and resharing Kendzior’s post because I identify closely with it–and because I am no longer an academic (not in the traditional sense, anyway). In regard to your point about jargon, I think the problem is not using jargon but overusing jargon. Sometimes academic writers rely on jargon to say All of The Things, and the end result is that their piece is unintelligible. They use the jargon as shorthand instead of trying to make their ideas as clear as possible. I remember a graduate school professor who would stop the class every time one of us used a term borrowed from literary theory or cultural studies and asked us what we meant by that.

    But I also think that Kendzior wasn’t throwing academic writing under the bus. She does clarify that she’s not saying academic publishing doesn’t have value. She points out that academic writing that is accessible can make a difference. I don’t believe that she is equating accessible with “non-academic audience.” In fact, I think all academics would love to read more accessible academic prose.

  2. Sarah Kendzior Says:

    This seems impossible to address on Twitter, so I’ll post here. Thank you for the response, but it would have helped if you’d quoted or referenced specific passages to make your points. Especially since, in the following cases, I never said what you claimed I did:

    What you said: “I wish we could find a way to talk about these issues without throwing scholarly writing as such under the bus, though.”

    What I actually said: “This is not to say that academic publishing has no value. In-depth, clearly written scholarly research has its own value: It can reshape understanding, inform policy, and even help save lives, assuming the work is accessible. What it cannot do is get you a job.”

    What you said: “Nevertheless, it always rankles me when people seem to assume that there’s something inherently problematic about being a specialist and writing for other specialists.”

    What I actually wrote: Absolutely nothing about specialization. I don’t find specialization inherently problematic. I have faith in a determined layperson to understand scientific writing, which is why I push for all work to be made accessible to the public. There was nothing about specialization in the article, however.

    What you said: “The same goes with potshots at “jargon” — why is it illegitimate for a specialized group to have specialized vocabulary?”

    What I actually wrote: “With the odds of finding a tenure-track job against them, graduate students are told to plan for a backup career, while simultaneously being told to publish jargon-filled research in paywalled journals.” This is a factual statement. Students are pressure to do exactly that. I think in the humanities and social sciences it is often avoidable. But again, this is not my argument here, nor is my opinion of jargon in this article. This is a minor statement of fact that you have conflated into a “pot-shot”.

    What you said: “so he also wouldn’t get a job under the type of regime Kendzior is gesturing toward either. Career-driven overproduction kills authentic intellectual work, but so does the demand for immediate intelligibility to non-specialists.”

    What I actually wrote: “But what ‘counts’ should be producing work of lasting intellectual value instead of market ephemerality. What ‘counts’ should be the quality of the research and writing, not the professional advantages you gain from producing it.” I have no idea how you imagined a “regime” out of this, but it does not fit into the narrow perspective you have imagined for me.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I apologize for misconstruing your intentions. I think that the hinge that led to my reading of your article was a misunderstanding of what you meant by “accessible” — you apparently meant it as “people don’t need to get past a paywall to gain access,” where I was thinking of it in terms of “most readers could make sense of it immediately.” I’ve mentioned on Twitter what led me to this conclusion: your complaint about jargon, your emphasis on the “inherently narrow audience” of academic publication, and your example of the creative writing prof who had to give up her work for a broader audience in order to focus on academic writing. All of this fed into a broader context of anti-academic rhetoric and led me to think you were privileging popularizing styles of writing over the scholarly. With that reading in place, your quoted statement about the value of academic writing seemed like a concession rather than a primary point, all the moreso in that you made a point of describing that valuable work as “clear.” So as I said on Twitter, while I admit that I did not read your words in line with your intention and I sympathize with how frustrating that is, what I did read was there to be read — and I assume I will not be the only person who initially interprets your piece in that way.

  4. Sarah Kendzior Says:

    Thank you. I appreciate the apology and clarification of how you formed your interpretation. No hard feelings — I enjoy your blog and look forward to reading more.

  5. Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD Says:

    First time commenter (and reader!) here. Really, really enjoyed reading your piece, and I think you make a solid point on why we should publish, and why we should have a public intellectual bent.

    By the same token, I also enjoyed the piece that Sarah Kendzior posted (although I don’t always agree with her viewpoints, twice this week she has made ones I agree with). I view myself as a public intellectual in that I blog, and tweet, and have a very heavy social media presence, and I also publish (on the tenure-track, hard not to do!). The last point Kendzior made was the one I took away:

    “But what ‘counts’ should be producing work of lasting intellectual value instead of market ephemerality. What ‘counts’ should be the quality of the research and writing, not the professional advantages you gain from producing it.”

    What I gain out of my research is studying what I am interested in, and doing what I love (being a professor). The intellectual and practical and policy-applied aspects of my work. I publish, then I blog and tweet about it. I use social media as a sounding board to get feedback on how I’m approaching a particular research project.

    I think it’s not an either-or proposition, as Dan Drezner aptly put it. You CAN publish and you CAN be a public intellectual and both have value. And both can, and more importantly, *should* be done. I think in many ways Kendzior and you were making very similar points. And I enjoyed both your pieces.

  6. Tim (@tim_harrap) Says:

    Adam / Sarah mighty impressed with your exchange. A good example of how to do it.


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