Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Academic burnout

The academic world is subject to the same trends as society in general and one of these is bewildering choice in everything. In the "good old days" there was, for example, a limited number of publications within a given field and if you kept an eye on them you could keep abreast of the latest findings. Today there are countless sources of information in every conceivable field and keeping up to date is a much greater challenge.

This is the theme of an article, Knowledge overload, by Ken Coates in Inside Higher Ed. He gives the example of a recent conference which featured around 4,000 presentations over 4 days and concludes that even the most enthusiastic delegate can only manage to sample around 2% of the content on offer. Many of the papers were presented to very limited audiences, even if the content may well have been highly relevant. Even if all the material was accessible on the net afterwards, how many of the participants have any time to seriously read it all? I have just received the proceedings of a conference I attended last year and even though I'm sure there is plenty of valuable content there I doubt if I'll ever read more than a small fraction of it.

More and more people are writing more and more articles in an ever increasing number of publications, both on-line and on paper but how many are actually being read? The author, like the rest of us, finds it impossible now to stay up to date in his field and resorts more often than not to reading abstracts rather than papers, digests rather than articles and so on.

This infinite diversity and variety ("an academic monsoon" as Coates puts it) means that skills like digital literacy, skimming and filtering are essential but as the academic overload swells the risk increases that some research may never be read by anyone. Should there be limits to the amount of academic output to ensure that it is actually put to constructive use?

1 comment:

  1. There is this odd dichotomy with information. In one sense it becomes increasingly specialized as it becomes more available. Hence, the presentations to small audiences that you discuss. At the same time, as more information becomes more available, the more valuable "interdisciplinary" work - and indeed "interdisciplinary" minds become. Standing alone, much of what we know has little value. It must be knit together with other information.
    I think of the printing press and how it gave birth to the renaissance. The great minds of the renaissance were "interdisciplinary." I often think and hope that we stand on the verge of a new renaissance.