As I have mentioned before, there is an enormous over-production of scholarly writing, especially in the humanities and social sciences. Some of it is driven by mandates imposed by governments, and lots by universities’ apparent craving for self-harm. Still, quite a lot is also caused academics themselves (i.e. ourselves). We are competitive, self-deceptive, and rarely good at much apart from academic writing—teaching not excepted.
What to do? One possibility is strive for self-control and to resist writing—and certainly publishing—unless one knows something that at least twelve other people need to know and will never otherwise find out.
Two considerations argue against this approach. The first is that we seem to be very poor judges of what others need to know. The second is that we tend to over-rate the significance of own work. A good friend, X (an enormously distinguished academic) once told me—in a moment of ethanolic honesty—that he had now resolved to publish nothing more unless it was a true ‘X-gem’. Of course this came to nothing, as you will have guessed by the very fact that he presupposed that some non-trivial amount of his work would turn out to be not only of lapidary, but even gemological, beauty. Scores of papers appeared anyway, many of them repeating the repeated lines that had made him influential, in his own scintillating way.
But now consider the obvious alternative: external editors. Won’t that work? Sadly, no. And I say this, in all humility, as an editor of an annual, of a book series, and as a member of the editorial boards of what are regarded as top journals in my fields.
Undeniably, in the outlets for which I am part-responsible, it has never once been the case that we published because: we needed to fill a number, we needed to replace an author who didn’t produce, we thought there could be a market for a ludicrous argument, we liked someone, or we needed to keep up the pace in order to remain on the radar. Still—all of these are true of every other academic outlet in the English-speaking world. In particular, US law reviews (of which there are thousands) are filled (up) with material that, absent such considerations, would never find a home anywhere. They are products of ‘internal’ necessities only—and of the institutional necessity to publish the writings of their own faculty while buffing the CVs of their student ‘editors’.
So here is my suggestion. Every university teacher under, say, 60, should be contractually required to have a blog. (Oldsters will be forgiven their tech-phobias.) The blogs will be hosted and maintained by their own universities, and the universities will not claim intellectual property in the blog-publications, and will never attempt to impose any regulations on faculty blogs apart from those required by general law. But no blog entry will be citable, or mentionable, in any internal context, including deliberations about tenure, promotion, salary, etc. And no one will be allowed to complain in any such context that Professor X is a sourpuss on his blog, or that he published something that their students found offensive, micro-aggressive, or dumb.
The idea is that compulsory blogs could in time become safety valves, relieving pressure from journals and book publishers. Professors will thus be nudged—not compelled—towards writing in places where the marginal cost, and harm, of another publication is about zero. No longer will someone wake up, realize there is a tiny non-sequitur in some argument, and then start his article-generator grinding away at the literature review, the three alternate interpretations, his own ‘better view’, his reply to all possible objections, and his final, predictable, agonizing, Summary of My Argument—which gets fed into a paper-submission-app, inevitably to be accepted by, shall we say, the Southern-Canadian-Columbian-State-Journal-of-Transystemic-Legal-Studies. Instead, he will just have a double espresso, practice three minutes of mindfulness, and then take to his blog. After the scholarly ejaculation has subsided, he will take a nap and prepare for class.
How can I be sure? Actually, I’m not. But what alternative do we have? Everything I can think of seems much worse.