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Some Arithmetic About Non-Reading of Writing

Aaron Gordon’s writing about written reports that few people have read has probably been read more than most reports about reports that few people have read. Gordon’s report about reports was published in Pacific Standard:

At one of the first academic conferences I ever attended, I heard an economist joke that dissertations are only read by three people: the author, their advisor, and the committee chair. It’s funny in the way that academic jokes are funny: not actually funny but it gets listeners to nod along with the central truth. This specific central truth must resonate with established academics, since I heard versions of this same joke at nearly every conference I attended thereafter.

Like many jokes, this particular one turns out to be half true. A burgeoning field of academic study called citation analysis (it’s exactly what it sounds like) has found that this joke holds true for not just dissertations, but many academic papers….

A Perhaps Larger Question: Business Reports

Gordon’s report (like many similarly-intentioned reports by many other people) does not look into a related question: Of all the reports written in businesses and other non-academic organizations, how many are read by anyone other than the person who writes them?

Reporting on a Report About Reports About Reports

Such questions are not without honor. Perhaps the highest honor accorded so far is the 2012 Ig Nobel Prize for literature. That prize was awarded to the US Government General Accountability Office, for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.

That prize-winning report about reports about reports is: “Actions Needed to Evaluate the Impact of Efforts to Estimate Costs of Reports and Studies,” US Government General Accountability Office report GAO-12-480R, May 10, 2012.


Improbable Research