Academics Anonymous, The Guardian
Do universities generate banal, wasteful research through the relentless focus on publications as a performance indicator? It’s a question I began asking myself while working in a research unit that specialised in social care. A seminar by a visiting researcher confirmed my suspicions.
The researcher had received local public funding in a town where welfare agencies were worried about 16- and 17-year-olds dabbling with drugs. The agencies wanted the research to help them understand how peer group influences were affecting such risky behaviour. At the seminar, the researcher described how he designed research based on academic sociology literature on risk among young people. This approach ignored the reason why he had been granted funding in the first place: he didn’t even interview any young substance abusers in the local area.
Instead, the researcher used a definition of risky behaviour that matched that in other risk papers in the journals where he was hoping to publish. This included topics as different from drugs as jumping from roofs of houses. His interviewees’ age-range spanned 12 to 24 years – not the age-group that had aroused local concern. Potentially useful research targeting a live, important problem was replaced with a study that was aimed primarily at being selected for publication by prestigious journals.
This example made me reflect on something similar happening in my research team, albeit in subtler ways. Research was conducted with such an eye to the advancement of the research unit or the researchers’ careers that its whole purpose was compromised.
For instance, my supervisor told me to delete certain details from a report to the government department that was funding my research. She asked that any explicitly tentative interpretations be removed, in case uncertainty would be perceived as a shortcoming by an academic referee in the research excellence framework funding distribution exercise. She also warned that certain words could have associations for the referees, which would lead them to mark down the research for failing to cover those associated areas – better not to mention them at all.
Steadily the report was shorn of the information needed to make it useful. And thus the government could pay many tens of thousands of taxpayers’ pounds, yet end up with a bland, deliberately incommunicative report, crafted to be hard for academic referees to criticise.
In our unit, reporting an original research finding also sometimes encounters resistance by supervisors. While original findings can be very attractive to journals, they also risk rejection. A journal’s natural first choice for the referees, who advise on acceptance of a paper, are the current authorities on a topic. How might these treat findings at variance with their own? Offering journal referees familiar findings is the cautious strategy for getting work published.
One colleague joked how a smart researcher would always choose thoroughly hackneyed designs for their research, adding a tiny, inconsequential, new twist each time. This way your findings would always be accepted, she said, because everyone knew what they should be. While I did obtain permission to report some original findings, if you want an easier academic life, you typically write what other people had written.
There’s a low risk of new findings, though, if you follow my last supervisor’s time-saving dictum on analysing research results. Before you start analysis, she said, decide on suitably prestigious journals to target and then formulate the subjects of papers based on those that would suit them. Maybe this tactic had helped her net a vast publications list, but in terms of generating opportunities for useful discovery – what a waste!
In some university departments, the path to worthwhile, interesting research runs in the opposite direction to the route to an enduring research career – as I found to my cost. In my experience, interesting, useful research comes quite easily, if you address issues that matter in the real world, not the journal world, and respond to unexpected information. But so much in universities is pushing people to target performance indicators instead. This is easiest done through hackneyed, inconsequential, self-serving work, which ultimately short-changes research funders. Work like this for long enough and you’ll lose the ability to work any other way. Or to see anything wrong with the tactics I’ve mentioned.