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Escaping the Academic Coal Mine

David Rönnegard argues that academia must focus on unearthing gems.

As many as 37% of employees self-report that their jobs are pointless (YouGov poll, UK, 2015). The anthropologist David Graeber has described a ‘pointless’ job as one that would make no difference to anyone if it ceases to exist. Such jobs are not confined to low qualification tasks, such as telemarketing, but are also prevalent at various levels of management. I would like to contend that one of the most qualified positions one can hold, that of university professor, is pointless, too, at least in some respects.

Most professorial positions involve a combination of teaching and research. The teaching part undoubtedly has its merits. Who else would convey the body of knowledge that humanity has acquired, but someone who has gained that knowledge? It is the research part – the process of acquiring further knowledge – that many a time seems pointless; or at least seems to miss the point.

According to some estimates, 82% of academic articles in the humanities are not cited. Not once. The natural sciences fair better, with only a quarter of articles never being cited. But still, the numbers are startling. They suggest that there’s a vast amount of research being produced that isn’t up to snuff; that’s not even worth a mention. Is this a problem?

It need not be problematic per se. A system may need to produce waste to achieve the desired result. For example, a competitive system might produce mostly losers and only a few winners, but the losing competitors are needed to foster the best. An apt metaphor for our academic setting might be that we need a lot of coal to produce a few diamonds. But are we getting enough diamonds from our coal?

It seems to me that the incentive system of academia is set up to primarily produce coal. Academic positions, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, tend to be offered on a ‘publish or perish’ basis. In other words, in order to climb through the ranks to attain tenure, every year a professor typically needs to publish a stream of articles in peer-review journals. But is it reasonable to expect the production of significant ideas on a schedule, especially one as short as a calendar year? By contrast, it took Charles Darwin twenty years to publish The Origin of Species (containing perhaps humanity’s most ground-breaking idea); and Ludwig Wittgenstein revolutionized twentieth century philosophy twice during his lifetime, despite hardly publishing anything for decades in between.

I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a publication requirement for professors, but momentous ideas need time to mature. Coal does not turn to diamond overnight. Indeed, seen through this metaphor, coal production might be expected during professorial infancy, while greater experience may eventually lead to the production of gems. I believe that the bustle to churn out research papers yearly helps explain the relative insignificance of many contributions. The phrase ‘least publishable unit’ (LPU) has been batted around academia for a while. It refers to the commonplace strategy of maximising your count of publications by making each one contain the smallest possible contribution to the field needed for it to get published. This hardly seems like a noble ambition; but it is understandable given the perverse incentives.

However, we can’t lay the pointless research allegation entirely at the feet of misguided incentives. Let us not forget the arcane research interests of many an academic. I, for instance, am currently crafting an article that tinkers with aspects of John Rawls’ political theory that are so esoteric that they’re probably of no interest to anyone not trapped inside the same isolated bubble. So why do it? The simple answer is that the research is at least meaningful to the author. Unfortunately, though, this sounds an awful lot like self-gratification.

Such intellectual self-stimulation might be salvageable in a wider context. It might be regarded as typical of primary research that we don’t know where it’s going: it might even be the beginning of a whole new way of seeing things. But ultimately, if research is not being read beyond a nerdy few, is it worth doing, at least in a professional context? Shouldn’t it rather be a hobby?

I am on the fence here, not least because of some of my own geeky interests. Nevertheless, you cannot expect ground-breaking research from someone who is neither inspired nor encouraged to think freely; and in so encouraging them, some arcane academic conversations will inevitably spring up, which might lead to a new way forward, and so certainly cannot be censored. But that doesn’t account for, nor justify, the uninspired, career-driven, least-publishable-unit publications.

The incentive system could easily be improved in the spirit of thinking freely with an eye to mining diamonds. Even within the ‘publish or perish’ paradigm, a simple change from quantity to quality would do wonders. For example, the University of Chicago is said to more heavily evaluate the impact rather than the number of articles in relation to career promotion, and Chicago punches above its weight when it comes to Nobel Prizes – it ranks #4, and is second to none within economics. Its seeming wish to shun the academic paper churn not only makes sense, it has shown results. So let’s at least start here. And for those of us holding on tooth and nail to our pet intellectual interests, we can continue to do so, but should know that if it gets too arcane perhaps we’re not doing ourselves any professional favours.

After all, if academia has a purpose, it comes down to the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Research incentives within academia should be structured with that in mind. Academic research is not just some esoteric hobby, or a series of career hoops for tenure. It’s time to escape the coal mine.

© Dr David Rönnegard 2020

David Rönnegard has a PhD in Philosophy from the London School of Economics, and is a researcher and teacher in corporate social responsibility in Stockholm.

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