Almost no one reads my work. Should I care?

I recently read an article that has been going around social media in which the authors argue that basically no one is reading academic journals. They argue that in order to be heard, and in order to shape policy, professors and academics should be writing Op-Eds.

The article, which I’ve linked to here,  should be read with a few caveats. First of all, the authors suggest that the average academic paper is read in total by about 10 people. They provide no evidence or information about how they arrived at that estimate. Second, they are writing from the standpoint of social science and political science. In other words, the results may not apply to other disciplines. That said, I believe there are many reasons to take their idea seriously.

There are too many articles published every year.

There are so many scientific and academic journals operating right now. For example, the popular journal PLoS ONE  published 31,500  articles in 2013… That’s 86 articles a day.  In 2014, the published even more….33,000 articles. Only one of them was from my lab.  Now I happen to think that this particular article was a really good paper. It was based on my student Rachel’s master’s thesis. But it’s only one of over 30,000 articles that year. According to the statistics on their own site, there were about 1400 views of our article. So far it’s been cited twice.  Is that good? Is that enough?  Should I care? After all, it’s only one paper of many that I have published in the last few years

This is only the tip of the iceberg. As I said, this is one journal. There are other large journals like PLoSONE.  And there are many, many smaller journals with limited output. But still, it’s estimated that this year alone there will be over well 2 million articles published.  Even if you assume that within your own field, it’s only a few thousand every year, finding the ones that matter can still be a problem. If you use Google scholar (and I do) to research, you may have noticed that it  it tends to place heavily cited articles at the top of the search. This is good, because it gives you a sense of which articles have had the most impact in the field. This is bad because the first thing you see is the same article that everyone else has cited for the last 20 years. Unless you take the time to adjust your search, you are not going to see any of the new work.

And as if this isn’t problem enough, there have been widely reported problems with the academic publishing world. For example some journals have even had to withdraw articles, many articles, when it was revealed that they were entirely computer-generated gibberish.  There are also hundreds and hundreds of so-called “predatory” journals in which the peer review is nonexistent, standards for publication are very low, and the journals operate solely to make money publishing papers that otherwise wouldn’t be published. You can see a list of these predatory journals here.  Even journals published by well-known companies have had difficulty recently. In some cases, editors have been accused of accepting articles with little or no to review.

Why do we do this?

I cannot speak for other academics, but within my field and for me, the reason is simple. It’s my job. As a professor in a large research institution, part of my job is to carry out scientific research, and publish the scientific research in peer-reviewed journals. Publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals was necessary for me to obtain tenure. It is necessary for me to be able to compete for federal research dollars. Other forms of communication can help in terms of getting the message out, but as it stands now, publishing a popular article, a textbook, a Op-Ed, a newspaper article, or even a popular blog essentially does not count. I might as well be doing that on my own time. Which, I suppose I am.

So in essence, we have a designed and embraced system that rewards publications in one format and does not reward publications in other formats. Unfortunately, the format that is rewarded is one in which almost no one outside of the immediate field will ever read.

What do we do about this?

I am not entirely sure what to do about this, but I do believe that it is a real problem. I’m not suggesting that scientists and academics abandon publishing in academic journals. In fact, I still think that’s exactly where primary research belongs. As long as the peer review is being carried out properly, editors are behaving properly, and editorial standards are high, this is exactly where you want your best work to appear. I also don’t want it to be the case that scientists and academics begin pursuing popular media at the expense of academic publishing.

What I would like to see, however, is an appropriate balance. It might be time for internal performance review committees and promotion and tenure committees to broaden the scope of what counts as scientific, academic, and scholarly contributions. This will provide some incentive for researchers to publicize their work. At the very least, researchers should not be penalized  for attempting to engage the public in their research. A successful research program is one that publishes in different outlets and for different audiences. We do this in my department, we work with the local public library, for example, to engage in popular science topics in psychology.  Our research communication office works long and hard to publicize and promote research. However, much of this is still considered to be secondary.

Another possibility, one that is suggested by the editorial staff at PLoSONE,  is for individual researchers to publicize their own work.  Researchers should share and Tweet their research as well as others.  And there are other formats, Google+, for example hosts a large scientific community that publicizes research, shares research, and even organizes virtual conferences. I’ve taken part in some of these, and they can be an effective way to share your work.

In the end, I wonder if we should all slow down, work more carefully, and think long and hard about the quality of our research versus the quantity of our publication output.  Otherwise, I think there is a real concern that the signal will be completely drowned out by the noise.