Technology and Tenure

Yesterday I learned that my university’s library bought a database of 180,000 scanned historical documents relevant to the eighteenth century. This database (like so many others available at major universities and research institutions) makes doing historical research immeasurably easier. It’s no exaggeration to say that, in many cases, a scholar can accomplish in a half hour what might otherwise have taken, literally, an entire career.

Consider my own recent experience. I was interested in writing an academic piece on the general perception of weeds in early America. To undertake this research, I accessed an on-line database of several hundred thousand documents from roughly 1640-1850. (Note: my university cannot afford this particular database, so I’ve gained access through the account of a close friend who works at an institution with ivy on the walls.) Within an hour, I’d found and printed out more than 74 documents (out of 187 found) with references to “weeds”-my chosen search term. Making matters even more convenient, the term was highlighted, thus obviating the need for me to read the full text.

Given the range of documents that came up, it’s safe to say that-had this powerhouse of a search engine not done the digging for me-it would have taken decades for me to find these obscure references to weeds, most of which are buried in documents living in a vault under some research library in Boston or Philadelphia (I live in Texas).

This experience is becoming increasingly common for those of us who work in the humanities and social sciences. And while I think there are many downsides to relying too heavily, or exclusively, on this form of research, there’s no doubt that it allows the engaged scholar to pursue questions in a much more streamlined (and inexpensive) manner. Which brings me to my question-one that I ask with some trepidation in light of the recent shootings at a University of Alabama faculty meeting: Should publishing requirements for tenure go up for scholars in the humanities and social sciences?

Right now it’s typical for a history department to require the publication of a book for tenure-some places, like my own institution, will accept five peer-reviewed articles (which basically means you can cannibalize your dissertation).? Writing a serious book in six years (the average time for tenure review) is no mean feat, but keep in mind that every newly minted Ph.D. has already done most of the research for his or her book when the tenure clock starts.? It’s just a matter of revising the dissertation into a book.? Not easy, but then again, not a project that necessarily demands six years. It’s perhaps for this reason that some universities are starting to demand the publication of a book and “significant progress” toward a second.

But, to my knowledge, that’s as aggressive as upping the tenure requirements have gotten. Again, I’m entertaining this claim with many reservations-for example, upping tenure requirements will most likely lead to an increase in mediocre work-but I think there’s a case to be made that a university’s tenure demands should keep pace with technological advances. Recall, it took me an hour to generate a decent document base for my weed article, a couple of days to see what other historians have said about the topic (not much), and a few weeks to write the piece.

But, to keep this idea in check, I should note that my piece was not outright accepted, leaving me to settle with the purgatorial “revise and resubmit.” So, as you might guess, it’s back to the databases for me.


You printed "more than 74 documents" without even reading them? Was the paper recycled at least?

science minded

That is what my students did in trying to determine awhile back if 9/11 was predictable. They could not `that' way.

science minded

correction- were predictable.


Interesting question! Remembering well my time spent as a research assistant for a professor researching articles for his Ph.D. with ERIC database and a photocopier (I fully expect to land in a circle of hell for the number of trees killed for that unnecessary study) I am amazed to now use university databases for grant proposal research. Unbelievably easier/faster/better. I had actually thought how much better undergrad/grad papers must be since research is so much easier to do, but hadn't thought of tenure implications. My instinct says that it seems reasonable to expect more, but I also hold fast to a "teaching university" mentality that hopes that these innovations lead to better and more time for teaching, not just better articles.


Gee, how about upping teaching requirements, instead? Or maybe "ability-to-contain-one's-ego" requirements? Or even "some-understanding-of-how-your-teaching-will-affect-anything-in-the-real-world" requirements?

Or am I just a bitter ex-grad student?

Robot Mistake

"Note: my university cannot afford this particular database, so I've gained access through the account of a close friend who works at an institution with ivy on the walls"

Thank you for reminding us of power and privilage wealth can afford.

not an academic

In answer to your question: no, not if these fields are interested in quality of work and thought. I don't see the advantage of producing lots of not terribly thoughtful work. It seems to me more useful to qualitatively evaluate a tenure candidate's contribution to the field and look at whether the applicant has shown intellectual growth since publishing their doctorate.

In the same vein, scanning 74 documents with keywords highlighted is not the same as reading 74 papers, understanding their (full) arguments, and integrating what you learn with what you already know over a period of time.


As a librarian I am worried about the licensing implications (of the wonderful resource) for the ivory covered institution. Institutions, in the licenses I have seen, are forbidden to share resources otherwise they will lose access. Most public institutions mange to get a section which allows access to "walk ins". So using the database this way could cause it's loss to the paying licensee.


I'd be interested to read your weed article. When building my house i got a city warning about weed growth on the property. Around the same time a new co-worker directly from China, complimented the "plants" in my garden. She thought my weedy yard was very pretty. (many were flowering). She was serious and my attitude towards "weeds" and lawns was permanently affected that day.

Tom from Wisconsin

I, too, am a tenured Professor, albeit not at a major research institution. Generally, the kind of activities required to achieve tenure at such places is about what you need to achieve a promotion to Full Professor here. Our requirements for tenure are less than yours, but still significant.

Computers and databases have made my research career much easier, but the end result still requires effort and creativity. Its not like publications just fall out of the sky or devolve out of reading the literature. You still have to put it together and still have to say something original. Further, you can't just sit under your fig tree in your toga and reason the nature of the Universe; at some point you have to conduct research (experiment) and collect data.

So how does that fit with tenure requirements? Honestly, I think the kinds of tenure requirements you have at major Universities are ridiculous. You wind up doing puppy mill research, just shoving the stuff out there in order to get your name on a publication and a lot of the stuff in print does not exactly advance the field. What's the point? Secondly, most of those faculty are just guiding graduate students as a teaching load (Graduate student: Slave to the research program of the Major Adviser).

In my opinion, tenure (which means you have a continuing appointment and they can only release you for cause) should be based on contributions from multiple areas. You should be actually teaching classes. Yes, even undergraduate classes, and not depending on TAs to do your work for you. You need to do scholarly activities and you should be providing some level of service to the University and community. Now, if you want to institute high research standards for promotion to Associate or Full Professor, that's another story. But suggesting that because library research has gotten easier is a justification for even higher tenure standards for scholarly output is going the wrong direction.


Jonathan Rees


Research databases are great, but have you tried Zotero? You can use it to suck up every primary source you can out of those databases in .pdf form and then search them later by the word. Seriously, give it a go.

In direct response to your point above, I don't think it's tenure requirements that should go up; it's publishing standards. Knowing what you can get on the databases or just Google Books, I will never again be impressed solely by someone's research in newspapers or any other old published sources. What will really matter now (and really should have mattered even before all these technological changes) is how well people connect all their facts to the overall point of their studies.

Hopefully, in this new era, publishers and peer reviewers will pay more attention to how well historians write, rather than just how much information they can accumulate. Indeed, I would argue that the hardest (as opposed to most time-consuming) task of the best historians has always been knowing which evidence to include rather than finding that evidence in the first place.



Interesting article. I bet the effect of the the web and e-publishing on productivity has been equally huge in (non-social) scientific and medical research.

Research used to require leafing through enormous books of abstracts and endless cross-referencing. Now I can find a broad answer to most questions within minutes using definitive online databases. I can also ensure that I stay bang up to date by setting up automated deliveries of all new papers containing my chosen search terms into my inbox. I wrote my PhD thesis on a computer, making ample use of 'cut' and 'paste' as I revised and reoganised my argument (though hopefully not too much use of 'copy'). The figures were drawn at the touch of a button and images captured and inserted electronically. I draft, revise, and submit all my papers electronically, and I electronically edit papers that I co-author when they're sent to me for review.

I can't help thinking the average rate of paper publishing for scientists with a given level of experience must have gone through the roof in the past 15 years.

There are planty of downsides. I bet the average time spent thinking through a problem has decreased, in favour of googling for a relevant paper. Funding agencies seem to expect ever more publications to obtain grant support for a project or person. And it takes a lot more than 5 papers to get tenure in medical research (I would guess 10 times more in the top institutions) - a really good student would be expected to publish their first 5 papers during the course of their PhD.



Well, printing 74 documents is not only a waste of paper - but also of time.

Your computer has this nifty "search document" command, which makes searching electronic texts very quick and easy - probably thousands of times faster than you can find those highlighted mentions of the word 'weeds' with your own eyes.


What about social scientists who actually need to go out into the empirical world and gather data? Your little idea would skew research heavily into areas that analyze data already archived and digitized. A worthy endeavor but with obvious drawbacks to researchers who need to get their hands dirty.

EIleen Wyatt

In my corporate job, I have occasion to deal with academic journals and frankly, there are a lot of journals that seem to exist so that the less-talented members of the field can publish enough articles to get tenure. The difference between the best and the worst journal in a given field is marked, and many of the "worsts" seem to have been started after the explosion of Ph.D.'s post-GI Bill.

Increasing publication requirements for tenure will merely worsen the signal:noise ratio.


As a PhD student at a research intensive Criminal Justice grad school I have to say no to the idea of upping tenure requirements. In my field it is atypical for any professor to receive tenure with any less than 15 publications in top journals in their first 6 years. This leads frustrated professors to shelve important questions in favor of questions that are more easily answered with existing data sources. Making it more difficult to achieve tenure most definitely impacts the quality of the work produced for the sake of a higher number of articles.

science minded

Dear Pedro;

Wait a minute. Assumption, that people who go out into the world to do research must get their "hands dirty" and should not rely on existing knowledge to advance their knowledge of what is already known or alter their opinion of what they think they know. Example- I tried another experiment today. Was teaching research methods and throughout the class, played music- a marvelous blend of French and Haitian. I asked students to monitor their feelings about the music and list at least 4 feelings that they had while listening. One student's response fit in immediately well with what I expected as a response to the sort of music that combines french and African culture-- given Freud's idea that the mind never forgets. "this was exhausting." No wonder I am so tired lately. I have not coded/organized their responses yet. And my original thought was aha " a seemingly benign experiment: may not be so benign.



I think your experience shows up the weaknesses of a tenure system that depends on the ability to crank out x number of books or papers. It has gotten much easier and for that reason we need to re-examine our tenure systems as a whole. Just upping the number of papers required does nothing to ensure that teachers are qualified in their fields or, just as importantly, capable teachers.


Oh Jared and dan, that's so cute. Academics are the biggest wasters of paper that I know.

And dan, It really isn't so simple as to just read the little parts of documents that mention "weeds." Context is important when interpreting historical documents (even individual documents lose some meaning without knowledge of their relationship to the larger collection). A good archive hopefully will have metadata available that will help not only contextualize collections, but also lead to other research opportunities.

And that brings me to what I like least about these wide-ranging database searches: They enable picking-and-choosing without encouraging the very important depth of research into a subject. Perhaps, to use the present example, people referred to what we call "weeds" in varying fashions in the past. A keyword search loses all that.


Perhaps an "honesty clause" would be needed to get tenure - i.e I will not/did not steal to further my career?

As you illustrate information is valuable and some people will take what they haven't paid for.