Steve Fuller will be speaking at the Battle of Ideas on  “Publish or Perish: The Crisis of Research Today” on Sunday, 14th October.

In the original modern defence of free expression, Areopagitica, John Milton advanced a striking version of two principles, ‘publish or perish’ and ‘publish and perish’, neither of which seems to have survived in the world of academic publishing. And academia is the poorer for it.

For Milton, publishing was the outworking of our divine natures: We imitate God most closely when we create worlds in words. To fail to publish is to remain creatures rather than creators. In this way Milton appealed to the Bible to overcome licensing laws in mid-seventeenth century England, which he saw as only encouraging self-censorship, thereby suppressing the most godlike aspect of our being. He regarded such suppression as tantamount to sacrilege.

By the same token Milton had no illusions about the possible consequences of allowing people to publish anything they want. Conflict, certainly at the level of opinions, would ensue, perhaps leading to violence and even death, in the case of especially offensive authors. Nevertheless, Milton’s view was that as long as the books of these authors remain available for others to read, an author’s death would not have been in vain because his or her spirit would continue to live in later readers. In that respect, dying in the name of free expression is the noblest death one could suffer.

For its part, academia has its own version of ‘publish or perish’ and ‘publish and perish’. Indeed, the phrase ‘publish or perish’ was coined by Clarence Marsh Case in 1927 to characterise the imperative guiding the promotion process in American sociology departments, which he believed resulted in an overall decline in the quality of sociological research. While Case was worried about the best being drowned out by the rest, nowadays the sheer quantity of academic publications means that most fall ‘stillborn from the press’, as David Hume famously said of his first book, regardless of quality.

It is widely accepted that academics write less to be read by others than to credential themselves. To be sure, the academic promotion process typically demands that one’s works be highly cited. But citations are subject to bandwagon effects:  An article is cited because others in the field to which one wishes to contribute has also cited it. Minimal acquaintance with the actual content of the article is required once it occupies a fixed position in some ongoing research narrative. Journal editors help the process along with peer review reports that tell authors to include references to certain works as a condition of publication. For most authors this is a small price to pay, but in any case it does not provide them with an incentive to read the works they are forced to cite.

More than thirty years ago, a library scientist at the University of Chicago, Don Swanson, recognized the enormity of the problem. He coined the phrase ‘undiscovered public knowledge’ to capture what he believed was a vast realm of discoveries that could be made simply by reading already published academic work against the grain of their default disciplinary narratives. Swanson himself was able to show that by combining two bits of research, each of which was relatively inconsequential in its home discipline, he could propose a hypothesis that in the end solved a long-standing medical problem.

Swanson’s demonstration has potentially profound implications. Most of all it shows that academic publications are more than simply tokens in a credentials game. However, they need to be read in an environment that values reading as a form of research. Ironically perhaps, academia itself is rarely such a place. Indeed, it is possible to make a distinguished career in an academic field by being sufficiently clever yet ill-read that you succeed in reinventing the wheel to the amazement of your colleagues. But it does not follow that no one reads. In fact one of the great virtues of an increasingly educated public with online access to academic work is that they are in a position to read without the blinders and pressures that beset academic authors with careers to maintain. It may be here that Milton’s spirit of free expression comes to rest.

The Battle of Ideas festival takes place at the Barbican in London on the 13th and 14th of October. For tickets and more information, please visit the Battle of Ideas website.

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