No One Is Listening

No One Is Listening


Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within scientific communities — 82 per cent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once. No one ever refers to 32 per cent of the peer-reviewed articles in the social and 27 per cent in the natural sciences. If a paper is cited, this does not imply it has actually been read. According to one estimate, only 20 per cent of papers cited have actually been read. We estimate that an average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read completely by no more than 10 people. Hence, impacts of most peer-reviewed publications even within the scientific community are minuscule.

Those figures appear in The Straits Times article “Prof, no one is reading you” by Asit Biswas and Julian Kirchherr. The article notes the lack of impact that the typical article has, and encourages academics to publish in popular venues.

If academics want to have an impact on policymakers and practitioners, they must consider popular media, which has been ignored by them — although media firms have developed many innovative business models to help scholars reach out. One effective model is Project Syndicate (PS), a non-profit organisation, which distributes commentary by the world’s thought leaders to more than 500 newspapers comprising 300 million readers in 154 countries. Any commentary accepted by PS is automatically translated into 12 other languages and then distributed globally to the entire network.

The philosopher who appears to have written the most for Project Syndicate is Peter Singer, but there are others who have done so, including Michael Marder, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and Carl Elliott.

The authors of the Straits article recommend that op-eds and policy impact be included and given weight in assessing academic performance, where appropriate, presumably. They acknowledge that “scholars often frown upon publishing in the popular media” but they argue that attitudes need to change. See our recent discussion on this—Reputational Cost of Public Philosophy.  (Also, recall the American Philosophical Association’s annual op-ed contest.)

Of course, not all scholarship—and certainly not all philosophical scholarship—has any practical import or policy value. But there are other outlets by which philosophers have reached the public—think of Philosophy Talk, Philosophy Bites, History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, The Prindle Post, Very Bad Wizards, Wi-Phi, and so on (feel free to add others in the comments).

Perhaps also worth recalling, in light of the 82% uncited figure, is “Philosophers Don’t Read and Cite Enough,” a guest post here at Daily Nous by Marcus Arvan. And then there is the question of whether the public wants philosophy at all.

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Jason
5 years ago

I agree with this, it is part of why I started a popular level magazine that includes philosophy articles written to different levels (Sci Phi Journal http://sciphijournal.com). It seems to be coming along alright and if anybody is interested in making a submission.Report

George Gale
George Gale
5 years ago

So, years ago, I publish an article in Scientific American. And my chair doesn’t want to count it in my case for promotion. WTF?Report

newfie931
newfie931
5 years ago

To the list of shows above, I also want to mention Entitled Opinions hosted by Robert Harrison at Stanford. Besides philosophy, the show also discusses literature, art, and music.Report

Garret Merriam
Garret Merriam
5 years ago

Blogs and YouTube videos can get hundreds, even thousands of views. My own YT channel has 10,000 subscribers. A single video reachers far, far more than all my publications combined.Report

Richard Menary
Richard Menary
5 years ago

The Conversation has published a number of articles by Philosophers. There is an AU, UK and US edition. I believe that they only publish articles by academics. https://theconversation.com/Report

Sami Laine
Sami Laine
5 years ago

I can not but help think how this might be just what we get when the main means of measuring a publication list is by tape measure and at the same time more people publish more than ever before.Report

Andrew Lister
Andrew Lister
5 years ago

The issue these statistics raise for me is not about public impact, but about the organization of our life as a discipline (disciplines – the numbers do seem to vary by discipline). An academic career is probably not the right choice if one wants to maximize one’s influence on public policy now. However it doesn’t make much sense for us to be writing so much more than we are reading. Individually of course it does, given that tenure and advancement are tied to publication and that alternatives to the “tape measure” approach to assessment are time consuming.Report

Myisha
5 years ago

This is why I also write op-eds and public essays in popular books. I want to expand my reach and I want people to listen. To work so hard and long on journal articles and only have 3 people read it (reviewers) is just disappointing. We can take that same journal article and also write an op-ed about it. Also to the list of shows above I want to add: The UnMute Podcast (www.unmutepodcast.co) The thought that 1 episode reach thousands while an article reaches tens, shows that we need to expand what we consider as important publishing. This is not to the exclusion of journal articles but in addition to.Report

Anon
Anon
5 years ago

I think all philosophers who want to be relevant should teach philosophy on YouTube while twerking on the back of a shark.

Scratch that. The real problem is that philosophers obstinately insist on talking about philosophy. They should complain about Obama and immigrants while twerking on the back of a shark. That will ensure that philosophy has public impact and value on the implied new criteria.Report

Alan
5 years ago

Another addition to the list of shows: The Partially Examined Life (www.partiallyexaminedlife.com)Report

Anon7
Anon7
5 years ago

I’ve tried to have the same conversations with my colleagues (I’m not in philosophy, but am in the humanities), but had little success. They are so ingrained with the idea that success is defined by the pure number of publications one accumulates that they can’t bring themselves to think differently. I think it is kind of sad that we’ve tied all the prestige and rewards to articles that nobody reads.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
5 years ago

Just a brief comment about the citation statistics, which are probably more dire for the humanities as a whole than for philosophy. An analysis of citations of articles by Canadian researchers in all disciplines from 1981-2000 gave figures for the average number of citations per article for each discipline. For philosophy this number was 1.11, but for literature, which makes up much more of the humanities (it includes English plus French, German, etc.) it was 0.33. For classics it was 0.81 and for history 1.30. So philosophy articles are cited somewhat more than is the norm in the humanities as a whole, which suggests that a smaller proportion of them are never cited. And whereas people in higher-citing disciplines such as the natural sciences or economics (6.74 for the latter) may cite things they haven’t read, because the norm in those disciplines is to cite everything written on your topic, I doubt that happens in philosophy. We tend to cite only things we’ve read and think especially relevant, which is partly why our average-citations number is low. (Why the literature number is even lower is a wholly other question.)Report

AlsoAnon
AlsoAnon
5 years ago

Flannarey O’Coner was asked if she thought that universities “stifle” writers, and she replied (I paraphrase), “In my opinion they don’t stifle nearly enough. There is many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good university education.”

Philosophy’s situation is even less manageable. University educations apparently foster the problematic writing. And the cynics within our own ranks would like to see more, rather than fewer, best-sellers.

It is very, very rare, I submit, that a philosopher publishes something that a reasonable person could be expected to want to read a second time on his or her own volition. I think that most professionals do not even aim to produce work that meets this, I would have thought minimal, literary and intellectual standard. The professional standards we have in place result in a large volume of “papers” written under duress. It is not surprising that these same notes are read only under duress.Report

Jennifer Frey
Jennifer Frey
5 years ago

I’m not sure we can infer from Article X is never cited to Article X has never been read. I read very widely in philosophy, and the vast majority of what I read I do not cite. I do not cite it because it strikes me there is no reason to cite it. It was no part of my training to think that I should cite everything I’ve read, or even the majority of what I’ve read. Perhaps that training was corrupt, but certainly many philosophers I deeply admire–men and women–don’t load their papers with citations and I was never encouraged to do this. I was trained to cite what is necessary–i.e., cite what you are quoting, the sources from which you are drawing your main ideas (if any), and sources you think are useful to your reader. And in my own case, that is typically not limited to so-called elite journals.

I’m open to rethinking my citation practices, but I’m sure I’m hardly alone here.Report

Iab
Iab
5 years ago

“If a paper is cited, this does not imply it has actually been read.”

The opposite is also true:

If a paper has not been cited, this does not imply it hasn’t been read.

I often read academic articles and books that I never cite and probably never will cite. I still read them, however, for a few reasons: (1) They are interesting (2) They keep me aware of what’s happening in subfields of philosophy and the sciences that are not my own specialty and (3) They contribute to my thinking in oblique and unexpected ways.

And besides, if this article is trying to advocate for more publicly involved philosophy, citing statistics about how academics affect each other is pointless. The real question is whether or not philosophers contribute to mainstream culture and that can’t be measured according to citation statistics. And then there’s the question of whether or not they ought to, which requires a bit of moral and political philosophy to establish.Report

Kate Norlock
Kate Norlock
5 years ago

Ugh, the tone of the headline directed at the “prof,” and the use of the second person, is so needlessly insulting. (I know, the actual article gets better as one goes through it.) Like it’s news to individual professors that — if we were lucky enough to squeeze into the crowded room we call the academy — we entered a professional system with standards we didn’t create, measures of success we don’t have much/any power to change, and prestigious journals behind subscriber paywalls we can’t just take down at will. Where are the university evaluation committees and boards of trustees that lament the anonymously peer-reviewed publications and really want to tenure us on the basis of our popular press publications, public presentations, and online writings? The implication that if only we would be interested in wider outreach, we’d be more contributing, but we’re so wackily dedicated to unread journals that we just don’t *want* to spend our abundant free time on engaged work, locates the failures in the wrong place.Report

Lynne Tirrell
Lynne Tirrell
5 years ago

The APA Committee on Public Philosophy is working on a statement to encourage departments and administrations to value publicly engaged work in personnel decisions, including tenure and promotion and merit decisions, as well as hiring and renewal for NTT faculty. We will suggest ways that it could count, and leave the decision to those doing the counting. Cases and situations will vary, of course. In the comments above, I hear the sentiment that writing for the public isn’t scholarly, more likely service, but in philosophy we have some great examples of canonical public writing. Hume was upset that his “Treatise of Human Nature” (1739) didn’t get a better response, so he wrote “The Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding” (1748), to make the ideas more accessible. Descartes first wrote the “Meditations on First Philosophy” in Latin, the language of scholars, but then he translated it into French, to be more widely accessible. These are major, major figures, showing that the history of speaking to and with the public is long. (Bertrand Russell has already been mentioned.) Some areas of research are obvious for public engagement, like environmental ethics and work on climate change, but some might seem less so…and yet whose work has had as many readings as David Chalmers’ or Ruth Chang’s TED talks have had viewings? Both talks are cases of presenting and distilling research already developed, but this distillation should count, just as Hume’s Enquiry counts. (P.S. Anyone who wants to make suggestions or comments about the APA CPP statement in development is welcome to email me. (lynne[dot]tirrell[at]umb[dot]edu))Report

Anon
Anon
5 years ago

There has been a lot of emphasis in the thread about the way scholars are pressured to produce, leading to a lot of unnecessary publication.

But I choose to publish in professional rather than public venues simply because I value intellectual freedom. I can say the things I want to say, in the way I want to say them, in a philosophy journal. The constraints of style in such venues are usually relevant to the content, so in accepting them I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing who I really am and what I really want to say.

In public venues, in contrast, there are endless constraints on style and delivery that often have absolutely nothing to do with the content. I know the acadmeic world has the reputation, but in reality, it’s public intellectual venues that feel intellectually stifling and unfree. The TED talker is the new section man.Report

AnonGrad
AnonGrad
5 years ago

As someone who frequently does this, one way to make sure your papers are widely read is to write on a controversial moral/political subject and give it a provocative title. Not only will you have readers/citations, but reply pieces as well!Report

Rajivlochan
5 years ago

Sorry. It does not work like this in academia. The unreadable Professors, the Head of the Department, the Deans, the Vice Chancellors, give privilege only to publications that have been dismissed in this article. As for writing in media that is more widely read: that is considered below dignity by the worthies.

Also, while many people are able to publish in professional journals etc., it is a rare academic that manages to get any publication in other media. Not because academics write on topics that do not interest others immediately but because most academics [sorry to say this] including the worthies mentioned above, simply don’t know how to write. Writing a simple article, based on solid information and analysis, is simply beyond their abilities. Not only that, writing in other media like blogs, newspapers, magazines etc. also requires consistent, regular writing. That involves consistent, regular engagement with topics that are of concern to society today. Chances then are, there is reason for the worthies to strongly support academic publishing, siphon big funding into that channel and revile those who do non-academic writing.Report

Pbriscoe
Pbriscoe
5 years ago

“82 per cent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once” – Could anyone give the reference for this statistic? I am not seeing where it came from other than stated in the two articles. Thanks for your help.Report