Who Reads Academic Writing? Who Reads Anything?

I’ve been sprucing up stevendkrause.com lately, mainly because I’ve got some free time during the summer recess and because it’s a distraction from working on “the MOOC book,” aka MOOCs in Context, which I am hoping will be out in print (and maybe out electronically?) about a year from now. It’s been interesting talking to some non-academic-types about this book. A couple of times folks have asked “Who do you think is going to read this?” As far as I can tell, no one has intended any malice with this question; it’s honest curiosity. I typically have answered “Mostly people interested in MOOCs or distance education, I’d guess. Other academics. So I’d guess a few hundred people in the world, maybe a bit more than that.”

Non-academics who know enough about the role of publishing in tenure and promotion in higher education and who also know that I’m a full professor unlikely to take another job at this point of my career sometimes then ask “Well, then why bother?” It’s a question I take seriously. We’ve all heard before that most academic writing never actually is read, even by other academics. It is one of the reasons why I want to try to return to writing some fiction, why I’d like to write more commentaries like this one I published in Inside Higher Ed a while ago,  and why I wouldn’t mind trying my hand at some “popular” non-fiction writing.

Though actually, Arthur G. Jago recently published a commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education that has an interesting take on this claim, “Can It Really Be True That Half of Academic Papers Are Never Read?”  It’s an accessible read that I’m thinking of assigning for first year writing in the fall. All of us are guilty of assuming certain “truthy” sounding claims without any actual evidence, and Jago traces in detail one of the most common of those claims in academia: “At least one study found that the average academic article is read by about 10 people, and half of these articles are never read at all.” That specific sentence came from another CHE op-ed piece published recently and it does sound truthy to me. Jago doggedly traces the origins of this– what study is being referenced here– and while he does turn up a number of studies that kind of make this argument, Jago concludes we will probably never find the “bibliographic equivalent of ‘patient zero.'”

The more you poke at this question about how often is the scholarship academics create actually read by anyone, the more difficult an answer becomes. For example, what does “read” mean? The easiest way to quantify this in terms of scholarship is related to citation, but a) just because someone cites something doesn’t mean they have “read” it completely or with a great level of care, and b) just because something hasn’t been cited doesn’t mean it’s been read.

Certainly putting scholarship online means it reaches more readers, especially if we apply a liberal definition of “read” to include “clicked on a link.” I’ve been linking to versions of conference presentation notes/scripts/slides on the online version of my online CV for a while now and when I compare the number of people who were actually present at these presentations with the number of clicks my materials get, it’s not even close. I’ve had my dissertation up online since 1996, and it’s received thousands of hits over the years and its being cited a few times. That’s more attention than I am sure the bound version has received in 22 years. (Note to self: I ought to take a road trip to BGSU one of these days to see if I can find it in the library). But of course a click does not translate into a reading.

The other thing that occurs to me is what’s the evidence that academic articles and books are read any less frequently than any other kind of article or book? I remember seeing a speech given by Lee Smith probably close to 30 years ago in Richmond (Lee was my MFA thesis advisor) where she quoted a statistic (perhaps an equally unverified and truthy claim, but still) that the average number of books read per year by Americans was zero since the vast majority of Americans simply do not read books at all. I knew some people just starting out as fiction writers way back when who had books coming out with major New York publishers and the press run was only going to be like 1,000 copies. As far as I can tell the trade book publishing business model is essentially the same as venture capital investing in the tech industry: publishers “bet” on hundreds of different authors hoping that one or two pay off with successful books. The rest? Well, thats what reminder stores are for.

Which is to say two things, I guess:

  • The main problem with academic publishing isn’t exactly that “nobody” reads it. Rather, the main problem with academic publishing is there are too many academics who only write and publish because they have to in order to get tenured and promoted.
  • While I’d love my MOOC book (and any other book I might end up writing) to sell a zillion copies to make me rich and admired and famous and all of that, the reality is that’s not a particularly good reason to write. So for me to keep doing this kind of thing the answer to the “why bother” question has to be “because I want to.”

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