A professor emeritus at the University of Missouri, Arthur Jago, in a recent Chronicle of higher education article was skeptical of the claim that the majority of academic journal articles are never read. But Professor Jago accepts that many, perhaps most, journal articles are rarely cited. And he notes that some academic journals have print runs well under 1,000 copies, with many copies remaining unread on library shelves. I suspect I have written many academic articles where the readership is closer to 10 than 100. This blog will be read by many more readers than the typical meticulously researched article I wrote in my academic bounty. .
In an earlier era, say, 1960, professors at most universities were not expected to do a lot of research. In an average quality university, the teaching load can be six courses per year? Three classes meeting three hours per week taught each semester. Today, at a similar university, research is encouraged much more vigorously, so that teaching loads have declined on average, say to four courses per year. In research-intensive institutions, the burden is lower; in schools with very low research expectations, it is higher.
The cost of reducing teaching loads to support research is enormous. An academic department at a fairly large state university thinks it should teach 72 courses a year. With an annual load of six courses, that means it needs 12 professors (actually closer to 14 to allow professors with administrative duties or on sabbatical leave). Suppose, in pursuit of research fame, the university reduces its load to four courses per year. She now needs at least 18 teachers to cover the lessons (probably 20).
In my field of economics, a professor, even a new assistant professor, costs around $ 100,000 a year with fringe benefits, often more. Going from a department of 12 to 18 members adds at least $ 600,000 in costs. Suppose each of the 18 faculty members publishes one article per year in a reputable academic journal, and the result would have been nothing without the reduced teaching load. With these assumptions, 18 articles are published for the $ 600,000 additional costs associated with the research ?? $ 33,333 per item. Suppose 100 people read each article? Probably a high number. It costs at least $ 333 for the labor of producing something for each reader.
In fields like history, the main scholarly results come in the form of books. The supposedly reduced teaching loads lead to one book produced by teachers every six years (that would be a pretty high production rate – at least five books in a lifetime). The implicit labor costs associated with each book are probably approaching $ 200,000, for maybe 200 readers ?? $ 1,000 per reader. Additionally, the $ 200,000 in labor costs will likely produce ten or less scholarly citations, at least $ 20,000 per citation.
The above calculations have many caveats. Numbers, publication rates, and costs vary widely by academic discipline. The math is undoubtedly significantly different in some of the hard sciences, and sometimes commercially successful research discoveries pay big dividends.
However, the fact is that the decline in teaching loads over the past half century has come at a cost. In part, this cost is covered by moving away from the use of expensive tenure-track professors to teach, in favor of more part-time adjunct professors (some would say a loss of teaching quality). The emphasis on research, however, is costly and often leads to an insignificant addition to the stock of knowledge. Diminishing returns take hold in research. The 100th article on the impact of gerrymandering, interpretation of John Rawls ?? veil of ignorance, or the effects of climate change on insect mating habits is undoubtedly generally less consequential than the first or second article. Additionally, while research sometimes complements teaching and leads to more insightful teaching, an environment of publication or disappearance can lead to student neglect, shallow teaching, and a decline in the mentorship of young people that helps them. through the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Tuition fees are getting too high. The benefits decrease in relation to the costs. Higher education is a labor intensive business, and cost savings should be achieved by reducing labor expenditure. While much of this involves masking the burgeoning administrative bloat, a healthier balance between teaching and research responsibilities is likely in order. New teaching technologies may be able to help, but I doubt Western civilization will be in jeopardy if the number of academic journal articles drops by 25 or even 50%.