There is a fair amount of discussion in the academic community about the stress engineered by the “publish or perish” system of granting academic tenure. What comes up less often, however, is the actual quality of a lot of that published research. According to an article by Mark Bauerlein, Mohamed Gad-el-Hak, Wayne Grody, Bill McKelvey, and Stanley Trimble in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a lot of academic research is actually pretty crappy:
The amount of redundant, inconsequential, and outright poor research has swelled in recent decades, filling countless pages in journals and monographs. Consider this tally from Science two decades ago: Only 45 percent of the articles published in the 4,500 top scientific journals were cited within the first five years after publication. In recent years, the figure seems to have dropped further. In a 2009 article in Online Information Review, Peter Jacso found that 40.6 percent of the articles published in the top science and social-science journals (the figures do not include the humanities) were cited in the period 2002 to 2006.
Academics, it seems, have a lot of pressure to publish, but not enough pressure to publish good research. More academics write more and more pieces for more and more publications. As a result, there’s just too much information out there for researchers to read and review. But this information doesn’t actually contribute much to knowledge or public understanding.
The writers have a few ideas to fix this problem. Primarily the changes they propose have to do with how universities look at candidates for academic jobs and their publications. Only let a candidate submit the best three or four of his papers. Look at the impact of academics’ papers. Finally, as the article explains, maybe it’s time to “change the length of papers published in print: Limit manuscripts to five to six journal-length pages, as Nature and Science do, and put a longer version up on a journal’s Web site.”