Monday, July 13, 2015
Hi, my name is Steve, and I'm an academic.
I'm paid to express my opinions. The more I publish, the greater the rewards: tenure, promotion, raises, summer research grants, chaired professorships, conference invitations.
My situation isn't unique. The reward structure is the same at most law schools and in the rest of higher education. The more you write, the more you get.
I once asked a dean (who shall remain nameless) what would happen if a faculty member received a summer research grant and the research didn't pan out, didn't produce anything worth publishing. The dean said that never happens because you can find an outlet to publish almost anything.
But do we really need all that "scholarship"? Would the world be any worse if I and other academics spent more time thinking and crafting a few high-quality articles that really added to the discussion, instead of trying to keep up the stream of constant publication? Would law and legal education suffer if we cut the number of law review articles in half?
Incentives are part of the problem. I have been in law teaching for 29 years, and my sense is that the pressure to publish is increasing. Quantity is surpassing quality as the prime criterion. When I entered legal education, two good articles was probably sufficient for tenure. Now, many untenured professors tell me they feel pressured to produce at least one article every year.
Another part of the problem is us. Sometimes, you don't have anything worthwhile to say. Sometimes, you realize you don't have anything worthwhile to say. Unfortunately, academics have big egos and, for many of us, the latter set is much smaller than the former, as illustrated by this Venn diagram.
And maybe part of the problem is generational. (WARNING: OLD FART ABOUT TO RANT ABOUT THE YOUNGSTERS) In a world where everything immediately goes to Facebook or Twitter, constant publication of low-quality material has become the norm. But, in defense of younger academics, the problem may be getting worse, but it's not new.
For whatever reason, we're overindulging in scholarship. Perhaps we need an Academics Anonymous, with a sponsor to call every time we're about to add more fodder to law reviews. "Hi, my name is Steve, and I'm an academic."