I used to be a bit sceptical about the value of published contemporary academic work. After all, I’ve met a lot of academics, spoken to them, listened to them, and I know how many faults a great many of them have, including intellectual faults.
So why do I need their help? If I just look at the evidence and weigh it for myself, I might not arrive at all the right answers, but at least I won’t have been duped into believing some fashionable theory that in twenty-five years will smell of dust and cobwebs and mold. I don’t want to know what people are saying about Plato — I want to know what Plato said!
My feelings have changed, though, for several reasons. That’s not to say that I care less about the primary texts, but I do now find more value in the published academic work on a subject.
For one thing, overall movements of scholarly thought on a question are less ephemeral than I had previously believed. Maybe the emphases will change over the course of decades, but the general consensus of academic opinion on a question is not so swift-moving that it invalidates itself. This is not to say we can’t entertain our doubts about aspects of the scholarly consensus (I certainly do!), but on those points we probably do well to try to remain humble, recognizing the weight of the argumentation that stands against us, even if it’s not ultimately conclusive in our view.
It’s also easy to see when a theory is idiosyncratic, held only by a small number of scholars, and even then it is easy (if they aren’t terrible writers) to see what evidence they provide for their claims so that their unique contribution can be either taken up or rejected.
The process of publishing a peer-reviewed journal article ensures that academic literature on a subject is basically the highest-quality writing we’ll be able to find about that thing. That’s not to say the process is flawless, but even a very flawed academic must be disciplined in argumentation to get something published, and will likely receive feedback requesting changes for any deficiencies in writing, which alleviates much that might be problematic in a given professor’s classroom lectures or professional interactions.
Someone who has decided to write an article on a given topic and has gone through the process of developing a strong argument and sifting through the evidence will have had to do a lot of reading and investigation, which will be synthesized and expressed in the final written product. Thus, by reading a single article, we can benefit from hours of reading and reflection done by someone else.
These writers, imperfect though they may be as individual people, are far above the average in terms of capacity for intellectual work, and through the sort of cooperation that is born from quoting each other’s published work and anonymously reviewing one another’s submitted work, they end up generating insights and interpretations which would never occur to most of us if we were alone with a primary text or the basic sets of data. Academic publishing is set up to reward innovation that meets high standards of argumentation, and this combination means that we are likely to encounter intriguing ideas and connections that we could not have formed on our own.
I never realized how powerful a tool Google Scholar can be. I wish I had realized it when I was a student. I even wish I had understood its value in my most recent job.
Have you used Google Scholar within the past month? If not, then chances are, you’re missing out.
Now, true enough, some of the search results that come up for Google Scholar are garbage, not coming from reputable publications. These are pretty easy to spot and weed out, though, and the pieces that are published in good journals will also show up in these searches.
Many times when we think of questions which would be interesting to look up on Google, we could find more good information, and more quickly, if we transferred our search over to Google Scholar. This is not just helpful for writing papers — this is how we can attempt to get the best information whenever we want to remedy our ignorance.
Published academic work certainly isn’t all we should be reading. But it has its place, and as I’m coming to learn, we neglect it to our own detriment.