Humanities Research and “Impact”

My old grad school buddy John Staines sent me to this Chronicle article via Facebook.  The very short summary is that, at least according to Google Scholar and some other quickly-formed citational studies, not all of our humanities articles and books are widely read, cited, or otherwise influential in ongoing scholarship or the wider public.  Surprised, are we?

There are lots of problems with this study: Google Scholar does not really do what this author wants it to do; the ten-year window might be too short to get a good read on impact, given the glacial publication cycle is in the humanities; and the breakthrough rate observed — maybe 1 book out of 10 showed a sizable spike in citations? — does not seem all that bad, esp when compared with comparable industries like commercial book publishing, in which 10% of the titles generate 100% of the profit, or film & TV, which I think operate under a similar model.

I also doubt the core claim: that pressure to publish quickly and abundantly makes us all “worse teachers and colleagues.”  The article provides no real evidence on this point, just suggestions that junior faculty suffer under “publish or perish” and anecdotes about shutting the office door in a curious student’s face because the professor needs to keep working on the book.  I don’t question the anxiety, but I doubt the bleakness of this scenario.  Do most assistant professors seem to their students or colleagues to be “nervous, isolated beings who end up regarding an inquisitive student in office hours as an infringement”?  Not in my department.  It seems just as likely that publishing makes all of us better teachers and colleagues: better writers, more ambitious thinkers, and more widely knowledgeable in our own and cognate fields.

But even as I don’t think this article has its facts or interpretations right, I do think there’s a problem lurking in those weeds.  We humanities scholars work very hard creating the products of our research, which mostly means writing articles and books, and in some cases also building web-interfaces or curating exhibitions or similar things.  But when the thing is in print we mostly stop working on it.  We mostly don’t think it’s our jobs to make sure that the work gets into wider circulation: we off-shore that job to journals and presses, which mostly don’t have strong publicity departments anymore, even if they once did.  Maybe what we need isn’t less scholarship, or even better scholarship, but better press.

(Parenthetically, I also wonder if this article is adapting the “impact” requirement in the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise, which especially values notices of scholarly work in the popular press or other non-scholarly media.)

So my question is — what would happen if we decided to take on more explicitly this job of publicity and outreach?  What if we valued it and rewarded it, so that our intellectual task is not done when the book appears in print, but continues, and getting its core ideas or findings to different audiences is part of the program?  What if, rather than outsourcing publicity to the shrinking staff of University Presses, we started to think of it as something we do ourselves, through partnerships internal and external to university cultures?

To some extent we already do this, by giving talks at conferences and academic events big and small, by sharing bibliographies, by formal and informal intellectual exchanges.  The growth of Facebook and academic blogs has presumably expanded the reach of this practice: I wonder how hard it would be to prove that FB sharing increases academic book sales or future citations? Not very hard, I imagine.

One model for my thinking about this sort of thing is the medievalist conglomerates that circle around the In the Middle blog and the BABEL Working group — Eileen Joy, Jeffrey Cohen, Karl Steel, lots of others.  Plus a few other academics whose work I’ve encountered mainly via the web: Graham Harman, Tim Morton, Sarah Werner, a few others.  I’d bet — though I’m not sure how I’d go about proving it — that all these people’s work has more “impact” b/c of their web outreach.  Self-promotion, I suppose — oh, the horror! — but it’s promotion in the form of engagement and intellectual exchange, which is more fun than just mailing flyers or postcards.

Eileen, a co-founder of BABEL & co-editor of two open sources publishing projects, punctum books and O-Zone, is really visionary in this area.  What I like most about her thinking on this topic is that she does not assume that open source means cost-free; she asks us to build private and public associations with various institutions — not just universities, but also libraries, museums, civic groups, etc — interested in and willing to pay at least something to support ideas and exchange.  See her bracing set of comments about open access publishing back in October.

As she says —

We’re smart, creative people. We can do this. We can look at and even grasp and remold the bigger picture, and we do it not just for ourselves, but in order to create the spaces and breathing-room and necessary *outlets* for the greatest amount of production possible of the greatest number of ideas. There is no more virtuous work in my mind in the academy at present, and it isn’t free.




  1. Palgrave] are either too strapped for resources to do it adequately [or at all, beyond an initial notice on a list-serv and *maybe* one ad in a journal and a few books on a publisher table at a conference] or, as is often the case with commercial presses, churning out too many books to give any one of them concerted individual attention. As you accurately describe, I am very much concerned to get academic to think more creatively about the ways in which we can, collectively and in partnership with others, better promote our own work and also publish MORE of it, and not less, as The Chronicle article asserts we should. Thank you for very kind plug here, as well, of punctum books. I hope your readers will visit our website and think about helping us, either as authors or editors. Cheers from Sydney!

  2. Well, somehow, the blog cut off the first part of my comment, which was just to say THANKS for this post [that article in The Chronicle has been bothering me all week and I’ve been thinking about responding to it, too!], and then I wrote that I’m glad to see you bring attention, especially, to the issue of the marketing and promotion of academic books, which we often don’t like to think about, leaving it to university presses [often too strapped, financially, to do much beyond a small ad somewhere, sending out a few books to reviewers, which take awfully long to appear, if at all, and having books on a table at a books exhibit at a conference, maybe once or twice], OR: read comment above!

  3. Please also take a look here – thanks

    A new, open access series for March 2013

    Inspired by the rise of Open Access, Print-on-Demand publishers seeking to cross the academic/ popular divide, HammerOn Press is calling for book proposals for the new HammerOpen Series, launching in March 2013.

    HammerOpen will contribute to the rejuvenation of public intellectual culture that is currently underway. Publishers such as Open Humanities Press, re: press, Punctum Books and Zer0 Books are redefining how and why critical writing is distributed. Books in the HammerOpen Series will be no different. They will push boundaries, challenge received wisdom and circulate radical ideas in accessible ways.

    Are you frustrated by the financial elitism of academic publishing? Do you want to share your research and ideas with new audiences? Are you committed to creating knowledge that is both useful and transformative? If yes is your answer to these questions, then HammerOpen may be a place for your work.

    Writing that creatively uses feminist, queer, post-colonial, dis/ ability, critical race, object orientated and/ or post-anthropocentric theory is particularly welcome in the series.

    Proposals can be based in any discipline. Literary Studies, Media Studies, Philosophy, Museum Studies, History, Cultural Studies, Politics, Social Movement Studies, to name a few. Interdisciplinary work is especially invited.

    Submissions can be from single-authors, for edited collections and anything in-between. Books published will ideally be between 40,000-100,000 words long.

    Please submit your speculative proposals in a single Word.doc document including the following information:

    * 500 word proposal

    * Outline of contents, inc. word length of book

    · * Schedule for writing, including proposed manuscript delivery date

    · * Short biography/ CV

    · * Short statement stating why you are responding to this call

    · * Suggested peer reviewers for your manuscript

    [email protected]

    Deadline: 1 February 2012

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