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I recently asked a on academia.se "[If] people still read monographic dissertations (in the Natural Sciences)?", which was fairly well received. It seemed to have hit a nerve as it sparked a lot of discussion and over 2k klicks in quite a short time. Unfortunately however, nobody tried to answer it, or at least they didn't have the chance to do so, because eventually, the question got closed for supposedly being "opinion-based".

Why opinion-based?

I was pretty surprised by that, also because there was no further information provided. I'm supposed to change my question to make it less opinion-based, but how? What makes it opinion-based? Different voters may have different opinions for voting to close a question, and it feels like grasping at straws trying to figure out their motivation and how to correspondingly change the question. So I would suggest that if you vote to close a question for being opinion-based, you have to give a reason for why you think that is.

How certain are you?

There are probably many questions where it's pretty clear that they are opinion-based, but I don't think my question is; it's just difficult to answer, and there may be many like it that were similarly misjudged. Here's what I explicitly asked in my question: "Are [there] any studies that have done research on [scientist's reading behaviour regarding monographic dissertations]?" This is a clear yes-or-no question. Either (some) research has been done, or not. If members of this community think that there is none, or cannot find any, I think that should be an answer, and not a reason for voting to close my question as opinion-based (assuming that that was one of the reasons why my question was closed for being opinion-based).

Additionally, proving the non-existence of something is impossible, so I don't think that the believe that something does not have an (objective) answer, should be enough reason to close a question. Instead, I think that this insight is valuable information that is much better shared: You can only really make such an assessment if you're an expert, and if you're an expert, you have good reason to believe so, and it would be interesting to know those reasons. So I think before you vote to close a question for being opinion-based, you should be sure that you are qualified enough to make such a call. Just because it may seem opinion-based does not mean it actually is.

Regarding my case specifically, I did a lot more research trying to find an answer, and I actually found relevant works. None of them address my very specific question explicitly, but I think they are certainly quite relevant. Since so many people seemed to be interested, I would like to share this knowledge, but because my question is closed, I cannot. So I would like to ask to re-open it.

Here's a summary of what I found:

So in conclusion, there are in fact studies on the reading behaviour of scientists (Nicholas et al. 2004, 2007; Baron et al. 2021), and they find that long-form reading is in decline. They don't address monographic dissertations specifically, but there is no reason to assume that this finding doesn't also apply to them. Additionally, the vanishing relevance of monographs in the Natural Sciences and the increasing popularity of cumulative dissertations show that there is a clear lack of interest in monographic dissertations.

I admit that this is still not a conclusive answer to the overarching question of my post "Do people still read monographic dissertations (in the Natural Sciences)?", but I think there is much evidence that people are likely not reading monographic dissertations in meaningful numbers anymore, at least not in the way that monographs are supposed to be read, which is front to back. Monographs derive their strength from their overarching coherence: ideally, every part was written with the whole in mind. That way, they should provide a better/more comprehensice picture to a reader than a cumulative dissertation might ever be able to achieve. But if monographic dissertations are not read as a whole anymore, they lose their defining strength. And in that way, I think it is fair to say that, indeed, people do not read monographic dissertations in a meaningful way anymore (at least in the Natural Sciences).

In fact, given that monographic dissertations only emerged in a form comparable to the current format during a time (around the 19th century, e.g., Allweiss 1979; Meadows 1980; Bazerman 1988; Kruse 2006; Paltridge et al. 2020) when journal papers began to completely replace monographs as the primary means of scientific communication in the Natural Sciences, I would even doubt if monographic dissertations were ever read in a way similar to how papers are read today.

Researching this took a lot of time and effort, and so of course I would never expect anybody else to do it for me. But that's not to say that there aren't any experts that already know all (or most) of it, and I think I have shown that there is sufficient information out there that my question can be answered to a (I believe) satisfying degee, even if there may be no research that addresses it explicitly. So again, while my question is difficult to answer, a seeming lack of research shouldn't be reason to close it for being "opinion-based".

Why close at all?

Finally, who benefits from closing a question for being opinion-based? Even if true, does that mean we cannot learn something from people's opinions? Wouldn't it be valuable to see the different opinions reflected in different answers? Why not instead of closing the question, just tag the question as opinion-based, and make it clearly visible/distict, maybe with a different background color or similar. Interface-wise, stating your opinion on an "answer-level" is also typically necessary, because you need the space and functionality to build your argument.

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Concerning the last part of your question, why close at all. Allowing questions that are mainly answerable by opinions, not facts will in most cases very likely lead to dicussions on what and who is correct, especially if the topic is slightly more controversial than the reading behaviour of academics. There are already quite a few questions on the site that probably should have been closed for the "opinion based" reason, but haven't (for whatever reason, the reviewers aren't perfect). Many of these are protected due to excessive discussions and other not so nice behaviour. If you want opinions and discussions, please look for a forum, which this site is not.

Another thing about closing and the reasons for it. I sometimes have a hard time identifying the "correct" reason to close a specific question from the limited categories that are out there. Some questions (like yours) are kind of in between, but nevertheless don't feel quite right, so you pick the reason you deem most fitting, even if the fit is not 100%.

And a third point: the extensive research you did to "kind of answer your own question" doesn't really answer it, but rather a different question, namely:

Is there any evidence that the reading behaviour of academics has switched to a preference of shorter publications?

or something along these lines. Which is /would have been a perfectly adequate question for this site as it asks a specific question answerable with facts.

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  • Hi, thanks for your explanation! I understand your first two points, but I disagree about the third. First, I explicitly asked a question similar to what you are proposing in my original post, and I address it again in this post and answer it. Second, you seem to imply that my overarching question is inadequate for this site and cannot be answered by facts, but that is not true. It could very much be investigated by e.g. a self-report study that asks researchers if they still read monographic dissertations. That such a study may not exist doesn't mean that the question cannot be answered.
    – mapf
    Mar 19 at 12:41
  • You ask "Do People still read..." that is a question that can only be answered by yes or no. And honestly, the answer can only be "yes", because someone somewhere is for sure still reading them. It is the phrasing of the question that makes the question flawed.
    – Sursula
    Mar 19 at 14:44
  • I get what you're saying, but my original question is obviously not meant in the strictest sense because as you say, there might always be somebody still reading monographic dissertations. It would be pointless. I could rephrase it to e.g. read "How did the relevance of monographic dissertations change over the years?", or "Is the readership of monographic dissertations in steady decline and has it approached near zero?" But that's just semanticts. It doesn't change the essence of my question or that of a potential answer. It doesn't change what I would like to know.
    – mapf
    Mar 19 at 15:33

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