One recent online article makes the headline claim that “academics write rubbish that nobody reads.”

It cites the following data from a recent report that has stirred some discussion on social media:

– 82 percent of articles published in the humanities are not even cited once.

– Of those articles that are cited, only 20 percent have actually been read.

– Half of academic papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, peer reviewers, and journal editors.

Suppose this is true. And of course, I am well aware that many academics publish articles just to move up on the professorial ranks–though I haven’t personally met any professional academic who does not have some passion for his or her research, however esoteric it may be. I am also aware that many professors are under pressure to publish, and so their research might not always be driven purely by the passion of learning. Yet, does this mean that academics should simply stop publishing  journal articles that seem impossibly obscure to the wider public? I would argue otherwise.

May I point out that arcane writings are in fact the fundamental building blocks of the academic enterprise. The journal articles that no one reads are in fact the very infrastructure of each respective discipline of knowledge. Permit me to use the following analogy: when we gaze upon the grandeurs of a skyscraper, we naturally lose sight of its foundation as well as the bricks that hide underneath the facades, but that does not mean these unseen works are unimportant.

For the most part, academics journal articles are composed for book-keeping purposes. The vast majority of books in the Bodleian Library remain unread, but the innumerability of unread items is precisely what distinguishes the Bodley from lesser libraries.

We can also think of it this way. Russia boasts of one of the greatest pianistic traditions in the world, and we know that the pianists whose records we have heard in the Western world are only the tip of an iceberg. We do not even have to go all the way back to Anton Rubinstein’s era. Let us just talk about the twentieth century. Among the countless pupils of the great Heinrich Neuhaus, how many actually rose to the kind of global prominence that Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels achieved? And for the average American, perhaps Vladimir Horowitz is the only Russian pianist of whom he or she has ever heard. However, without all the unknown pianists in the history of that mysterious nation who were there to pass on the great tradition, where would Andrei Gavrilov, Mikhail Pletnev, Evgeny Kissin, Arcadi Volodos, Yulianna Avdeeva, and Daniil Trifonov be today? Without the iceberg beneath the surface of the water, how can we even see its tip?

The fact is that when I cite someone else’s article in one of my own, the one I cite is most likely to be previously unread. Perhaps that article has been sitting in the dust for years, but I am thankful that somebody has written that article so that it is there when I need it. I am then building upon that previous article by someone else, while I contribute my own little brick. Invisible and insignificant each of these building blocks may be, the magnificent facades would come tumbling down if academic builders all seek to place their works in the visible parts of the building.

Now, some may dismiss my portrayal of the academic edifice as all too optimistic. My critics may point to the aforementioned online article to give examples of “academic rubbish that nobody reads.”

The author, commenting on the increasing specialisation of university disciplines, writes: “One unfortunate effect of this specialization is that the subject matter of most articles makes them inaccessible to the public, and even to the overwhelming majority of professors.”

He then uses the contents of a recent issue of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) Journal as his example, and names the following article titles: 

–“Dona Benta’s Rosary: Managing Ambiguity in a Brazilian Women’s Prayer Group”

–“Death and Demonization of a Bodhisattva: Guanyin’s Reformulation within Chinese Religion”

–“Brides and Blemishes: Queering Women’s Disability in Rabbinic Marriage Law”

I wonder if the author is suggesting that these articles in the AAR Journal are “rubbish that nobody reads,” but I can assure you that the one on Guanyin, which the author assumes with great cultural bias to be inaccessible and thus useless, is in fact very interesting and relevant to me and many others in a Chinese context.

The theme of Guanyin’s reformulation within Chinese religion has in fact been very helpful in my lectures and sermons. It sheds significant light on the Chinese reception and transformation of Christianity, as well as the overwhelmingly negative attitude of traditional Chinese literati to the literary, artistic, and theological theme of Christ’s crucifixion. Additionally, the Guanyin figure has been a helpful analogy for me to explain to my students the development of Marian dogmas and related religions practices in the Middle Ages.

Research on the transformation of Guanyin in Chinese religion has also been significant to scholars in disciplines other than religious studies. For example, Craig Clunas’s Art in China, published in the Oxford History of Art series (Oxford University Press), offers a very interesting discussion of how and why Guanyin transformed into a female figure in the history of Chinese art, and how Catholic missionaries were partly responsible for this transformation. These few pages in Clunas’s book are very effective in demonstrating the culture and worldview underlying Chinese art.

In fact, I was just talking about this with a friend over coffee yesterday, because the Chinese-Indonesian evangelist Stephen Tong recently discussed the topic of Guanyin’s transformation in Chinese religion in a massive evangelistic rally!

As for myself, my course titled “Christianity and the Arts: East and West” has been by far the most popular among all the ones I have taught. I offered this course to full-time students at China Evangelical Seminary once, and as an open course at the same institution once. I was then invited to Hong Kong to offer the same course. Finally, Taosheng Publishing House, one of the largest Christian publishers in the Chinese world, approached me and asked me to turn this course into a book.

One lecture in this course addresses the very topic of Guanyin’s reformulation within Chinese Religion. Of course, the aforementioned AAR article was not yet available for me to cite when I first offered this course. However, the articles and monographs that helped me prepare this part of the lecture carried titles that were even more esoteric than the AAR one. Here are some examples:

The Virgin Mary and Catholic Identities in Chinese History

The chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara

–“Ming and Qing Ivories: Figure Carving,” in Chinese Ivories from the Shang to the Qing

I recall that I got some of these from the popular book by Craig Clunas. The classroom job of a professor is to digest all these abstruse pieces and present their significance to students in a accessible way. Without these articles that may seem obscure to most people, the professor would never be erudite enough to teach anything profound.

Of course, there are always academic articles that we find irrelevant. I personally find the aforementioned AAR article on Dona Benta’s rosary uninteresting. However,  that does not entitle me to label it as “rubbish that nobody reads,” because I cannot assume that there is no one out there who will rely on the significance of this article to edify the public.

Sure enough, the arcane materials published in academic journals are not intended for a wide readership. However, scholars like Craig Clunas rely on these research findings to compose introductory books that are more directly edifying for the general public, so that popular figures like Stephen Tong (notwithstanding my issues with his theological errors) can in turn use the research findings to benefit an even larger audience. Yet, even without these indirect influences, book-keeping knowledge is valuable in its own right, as I have already pointed out. Therefore, let us not judge the worth of an academic article based on our own biases. One might find the Guanyin article in the AAR Journal personally irrelevant, but it sure is not “rubbish that nobody reads.”

As long as an academic is pursuing his or her research and writing with passion, consideration for readership and popularity should never become a hindrance. Contentment with academic invisibility is the virtue of a true scholar.

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