One of my clients came to me for help getting more writing done and out the door. In our initial meeting, one of the things that came up was that he felt like publishing his work was a bit like sending it out into the void. It felt almost pointless.
I suspect he is not alone. I have certainly heard other people grumble about pressure to publish with comments like “No one reads journal articles anyway. Why should I bother?”
No wonder you aren’t publishing much
If you believe no one reads journal articles, then it makes perfect sense.
Really. Perfect sense.
You aren’t lazy.
You don’t lack focus.
It isn’t that your research isn’t good enough.
You may or may not be a perfectionist who has trouble letting stuff go.
Fear of rejection may or may not be an issue for you.
If you believe that no one reads journal articles, then publishing your research in academic journals is a pointless waste of time.
The stories you tell are important
“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.”
― Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad
By telling a story that no one reads journal articles you make it hard for you and others to write journal articles.
I bet you read journal articles. I bet you have an even longer list of journal articles you want to read. If you walked down the corridor and asked your colleagues, I bet every single one of them also reads journal articles (and wishes they had time to read more). Every article you read cites other journal articles, which the author has presumably read, probably more than once. That author has probably also read journal articles that they didn’t end up citing (this time).
You may recommend journal articles to students, graduate and undergraduate. You may include them in the required reading for your courses. You may require students to have read and cited a certain number of journal articles in the essays they write for you. Your list of journal articles you wish you had time to read (or journals you wish you had time to skim to see if there are any articles you wish you had time to read) probably includes some you think may be relevant to your teaching.
You are not an outlier. Other academics will see themselves in those 2 paragraphs. Ergo, people read journal articles.
Furthermore, when I first published the earlier version of this post one of the comments I got was from a journalist I follow on Twitter. At that time she was writing for the social affairs section of a major Canadian news organization. She said she read journal articles all the time. She would contact researchers to ask for copies if she saw an abstract that looked interesting. She would interview researchers. She would follow the work of researchers and read later work. She was doing her job. The fact that journal articles were hard for her to access or written for an audience other than the audience she was writing for did not stop her from doing her job.
How do you move forward?
Start by telling a different story. Use the facts in the previous section as the basis for this story.
You don’t need everyone to read journal articles. You don’t even need lots of people to read journal articles. When that gremlin appears with a list of examples of people who don’t read journal articles or won’t read your journal article, ask yourself if you care about those specific people.
You only care about some people reading your journal articles. That may be a very small group of people a bit like you but that’s okay. Knowledge in your field advances by people in your field writing about things, sharing their well thought out ideas and evidence by publishing in journals, reading each other’s articles, thinking about them, doing more thinking and research, writing and publishing another journal article, rinse, repeat…
Think about those people, the people they will recommend your article to, the courses they will teach, the graduate students they will supervise. They will read your journal article. Write for them.
You may also care about reaching others: practitioners, policy makers, the general public. Journal articles may not be the right way to reach them but that just means you need to do more than write journal articles. If you don’t care about communicating with other scholars in your field, and publishing in peer reviewed journals is one of the criteria used to evaluate your performance, then you should seriously question whether you are in the right profession.
Are 90% of academic papers really never cited? Reviewing the literature on academic citations by Dahlia Remler debunks some of the myths.
A version of this post was first published on April 26, 2010. It has been heavily edited and earlier comments have been removed. Additional related post added July 6, 2017.