What’s the point of academic research?

By Bill Kaye-Blake 19/04/2013 5

I’m still thinking about MOOCs. A university is supposed to be involved in research and teaching, and MOOCs potentially cut into the teaching side of the business. Even if they aren’t as good, they may still take a big chunk of market share. One can buy hand-sewn shirts, but mass-produced shirts are much more common.

So that leaves the research side of the university. What’s the point? Is it to be ‘critic and conscience of society’, which is the New Zealand job description for an academic? Is it to advance knowledge and understanding?

What got me thinking about the topic was this profile of Noam Chomsky by Glen Greenwald. Greenwald, a journalist, has been a relentless critic of the security state that the US has put in place over the last two presidencies. Chomsky, an academic, has been a critic of American hegemony for decades. It is likely that academic tenure has helped Chomsky speak his mind. That is, the economic security of his job allowed him to have ‘a room of one’s own’ (Virginia Woolf) and be a critic of society.

University research, then, might be about providing an environment in which individuals and teams can pursue research, whether that research is criticising society or supporting it. The university buffers researchers from that same society — providing them time for the research to come to fruition, shielding them from reactions when their opinions or findings are unpopular. The uneasy bargain is that society pledges resources to the university — even when it bites the hand that feeds it — because of a belief that ultimately it will be for the social good.

But is it? Or, more precisely, is it at the margin?

And that question takes me to findings like those discussed here:

Consider this tally from Science two decades ago: Only 45 percent of the articles published in the 4,500 top scientific journals were cited within the first five years after publication. In recent years, the figure seems to have dropped further. In a 2009 article in Online Information Review, Péter Jacsó found that 40.6 percent of the articles published in the top science and social-science journals (the figures do not include the humanities) were cited in the period 2002 to 2006.

So it seems that much university research isn’t even of value to researchers themselves.

There is also discussion of the ‘need’ for academics to contribute more, be more engaged with society, adopt more of a public intellectual stance. Those discussions suggest that society — government, business, the chatterati — might feel that academics aren’t pulling their weight.

Where I’m getting to is this: if MOOCs call into question the near-monopoly of universities for delivering advanced education, then universities will have to lean more heavily on the research function to justify their existence. But, the research side seems anemic, at least at the margin. The additional contribution of the extra dollar of spend seems to deliver little in the way of engagement or criticism. Oddly, the crisis in teaching raises the title question: what’s the point of research?

5 Responses to “What’s the point of academic research?”

  • The NZ 89 Education act section 162(4) sets out what Uni’s are supposed to do. The “Critique and conscience” is only one part. The point of research in this act is to advance learning, inform teaching and build expertise and knowledge. If an NZ uni wants to engage in MOOC teaching it needs to ensure that it too is informed by research.

    (a)that universities have all the following characteristics and other tertiary institutions have 1 or more of those characteristics:
    (i)they are primarily concerned with more advanced learning, the principal aim being to develop intellectual independence:
    (ii)their research and teaching are closely interdependent and most of their teaching is done by people who are active in advancing knowledge:
    (iii)they meet international standards of research and teaching:
    (iv)they are a repository of knowledge and expertise:
    (v)they accept a role as critic and conscience of society;

    ps. I’m not convinced by the quality of the Chronical of Higher Ed article you quote – afterall the author’s lack of statistical nous is highlighted in his abuse of IFs
    “Second, make more use of citation and journal “impact factors,” from Thomson ISI. The scores measure the citation visibility of established journals and of researchers who publish in them. By that index, Nature and Science score about 30. Most major disciplinary journals, though, score 1 to 2, the vast majority score below 1, and some are hardly visible at all. If we add those scores to a researcher’s publication record, the publications on a CV might look considerably different than a mere list does.”

  • Thanks for bringing up the act and the statutory purposes. So let’s think — could universities do these things and be 10% smaller? 20%?
    (i) they could still offer advanced learning and intellectual independence, just to fewer people
    (ii) again, they can offer teaching by researchers to fewer students
    (iii) they can do this, too
    (iv) they can be repositories, just smaller ones
    (v) how much criticism does society need?
    It looks like they could still meet the act even if MOOCs took away a quarter of their business.

    Regardless of what you think of the two cited articles, they are similar to other findings, that a lot of academic research outputs (articles, patents) don’t seem to be used for anything. So, how does the marginal dollar compare to hip replacements, police, superannuation or trade negotiations? What is research, or what are researchers, doing for us?

    If universities don’t provide a good answer then one will be found for them, and they might not like it.

  • ” that a lot of academic research outputs (articles, patents) don’t seem to be used for anything.”

    But how do you judge this?

    Outputs that don’t appear to be used for anything could actually be:
    1) guiding other researchers towards new ideas
    2) guiding other researchers away from areas of research that haven’t panned out (but which we wouldn’t know if it hadn’t been tried)

    If researchers knew what the outcome of research was going to be then it wouldn’t(shouldn’t) be called research then, would it?
    And the exploration of ideas that don’t appear to have any obvious uses can in fact prove very useful and sometime lead to major shifts in thinking.

  • Sure, maybe, Michael. But then look at the institutional context. We have how many academics in how many universities who either will get fired or get salary cuts if they don’t produce vita lines. Committees are good at counting lines as a way of making sure that staff have done something rather than nothing, and even aren’t that bad at figuring out which articles are important. But the whole system is set up to guarantee the production of a whole pile of stuff that nobody’s going to read.

    There are at least a dozen blog posts that, with maybe a week’s work each, could turn into articles in low-tier journals. But what’s the point? It would be utterly wasted effort. Anybody who needed to see the jist of the argument gets it from the blog post, and anybody who wants to critique it and say it’s all wrong can do it on their own blogs or in my comments sections. Would the taxpayer who funds my salary be better served by my turning those posts into articles that will have no more readers than I already have? Pure waste. Except that the University’s looking set to fire anybody who doesn’t have enough lines.

    The whole darned system’s outta order….

  • We have how many academics in how many universities who either will get fired or get salary cuts if they don’t produce vita lines.

    Took me a little while there to work out what ‘vita lines’ meant…

    But no, I think this is a gross oversimplification. Academic taff need to bring in sufficient funding that their salary & operational costs are covered (once the institution’s overheads are accounted for, & let’s not get started on that). This funding can come from a range of sources: EFTS (ie the number of students that are taught; hence we tend to look very carefully indeed at the viability of papers with low enrolments); PBRF allocations; external research funding; & consultancies, for example. Yes, publications are a part of that, but they’re not the whole story. For myself, I publish relatively little (due to the various other significant demands on my time) – but that’s more than compensated for by the size of my classes & my teaching load (not to mention that I’m fairly active in actual student recruitment).