Rethinking Tenure, Part II: What Does “Research” Mean?

In the previous post, I was putting all the emphasis on teaching and almost didn’t say anything about research. One reason is that, these days, teaching is the main thing I do in a university context. Research is what I do outside of the university, mostly <a href="informally but sometimes under more formal guises. I do love research and I do find it very important in the context of higher education. But my perception of how the balance between research and teaching should shift probably diverges from most people’s thoughts on the matter.

So, my second claim about the tenure system is that we should rethink what “research” means in this context.

The emphasis on research at some research-focused institutions (“Research I Universities”) have often seemed both displaced and too narrow. Much of the “research work” has to do with grant proposals, advising, and publishing. These are all tremendously important, of course. Increasingly, these tasks are an integral part of any university or college professor’s career (along with committee work, which is usually associated with “service” but may also have to do with research).

In my mind, these research-related tasks aren’t more accurately described as “research” as is some of the work a teacher might do to develop a new course or adapt an old course to new contexts. Sure, these talks may be involved in more “important” research projects than anything a teaching-focused person would do. But these tasks don’t constitute research in and of themselves.

In a way, they’re the research equivalent of “extracurricular activities” in the learning domain.

“But,” I heard many people say, “you can’t do research without these while you can take a full curriculum without any external activity!” In other contexts, I’d probably dispute the second claim (that a learning programme could be free of extracurricular activities). But I’ll focus on the first: it’s impossible to do research without doing “all this other stuff” university professors are doing, as part of their research projects.

Let’s take grants… True, many research projects need large sums of money to be invested. Without funding, researchers can’t, for instance, purchase pieces of equipment which are essential for their work or remunerate assistants who are such an integral part of their projects. (I’m leaving out travel for fieldwork or conferences as well as many other things which appear on budgets for research projects. I can address them later but they seem somewhat less central than the other two.)
So, sure, it makes sense that a university professor would need funding to purchase research-related equipment or to hire assistants. But three things come to mind…

The first one is that funding comes in different forms and external grants to individual projects are only one. Some other ways to fund research are exceedingly rare, nowadays (such as self-funded research by academics who happen to be independently wealthy). But there are models which could still make sense and in which the burden of finding funding wouldn’t be put on individual researchers.

Unless I’m mistaken, much “R&D” in the private sector is managed in a way which separates much of the quest for funding from the actual research work. Sure, some employees in those R&D programmes may still seek and obtain external funding. But I’m quite sure that a large number of projects are conducted by people who aren’t directly responsible for finding funding.
Also, what I’ve heard (recently) about the Media Lab at MIT is that external funding by commercial entities isn’t tied to specific projects. Maybe researchers still have to fight for it (it didn’t sound like they did, though), but the point is that the time-consuming work of grant proposals wasn’t assigned to researchers in quite the same way that it is with most professors at “Research I Universities.” Keep in mind that we’re talking about a context of extremely high research productivity and very large funds.
Another example, very controversial, is that some people argue that funding should be directly assigned to institutions which already attain a high degree of performance in research. I don’t personally subscribe to the potentially elitist dimension of this view, but it shows that people are at least thinking about other ways to fund research. I don’t claim to know which one is the best solution, that’s beside the point. The point is that there are other ways to get funding than getting primary investigators to spend much of their energy on grant proposals.

The second thing about grants is on equipment. Sure, many pieces of equipment which are “absolutely essential” in some contexts are incredibly expensive. But many research projects rely on less-expensive tools, on shared/borrowed equipment, or even on no dedicated equipment. For instance, I clearly understand the need for “supercomputers.” But some computing-intensive research programmes have been undertaken without supercomputers and many research projects require fairly limited computing resources, even in some fields of computing. Similarly, research procedures which used to require dedicated equipment may now be done through general-purpose equipment, including personal computers. Not to mention so-called “crowd-sourced” projects and “distributed computing.” It’s also interesting to see that some research projects which typically required no dedicated equipment and which now make use of equipment “because they can.”
Which isn’t to say that budgets for equipment are necessarily bloated. But that, as a justification for external funding, equipment costs only cover some research projects. If funding were mainly about equipment, the “I can’t do research without a large budget” line only covers a part of academic research and I’d say that it’s often applied a bit too broadly.

The third thing about grants is the work of assistants (including graduate students). Research assistants are often essential to research projects. So much so that some “primary investigators” are acting more like managers than like active researchers. In those contexts, the research assistants are the ones doing much of the work which ends up being credited as research.
Now, this model is probably not generalised. I’m willing to think that most people who mainly use funding to hire people also do a lot of hands-on work and use research as an opportunity to train students. It’s also very important a way to help graduate students, financially. So I’m not saying that this model should disappear. Just that it puts a lot of pressure on the primary investigator to not only work as a researcher and mentor but to also manage a team of employees.
On its own, that model makes for a tight system, especially if you see research as a straightforward process which churns out “knowledge” and/or innovative products by virtue of spending the time and money necessary to “do the work.” I don’t happen to share this view, but even if I did, I’d still say that there’s something skewed, in there. For one thing, it doesn’t sound like the model people think about when they think about academic research. And while it doesn’t exclude the other things a university professor is expected to do (including teaching and advising), it does tend to create strain in a professor’s life between diverse types of pressure.

Which brings me back to the connections between research and teaching. One reason they’re both done by the same person, I would guess, is that there’s an expectation that work in one domain will help with work in the other. So, a professor who teaches about her or his area of expertise is likely to bring in the output of “the most current research” in the classroom. In my experience, this is only the case in some rather rare situations where a researcher’s very specific domain of expertise matches a very specific need in the curriculum. More importantly, it can as easily happen through collaboration, guest lecturing, or even…. part-time teachers who are also doing research.

Just a few words about publishing (as I tend to be carried even further away than with the other points). For many people, the connection between research and publishing is unequivocal. Since reporting the results of a research project is part of research, publishing is obviously part of research. Yet publishing is very different from reporting, at least in the current model of academic research. There’s a multitude of ways to share your results, from classroom discussions to academic conferences, from blogposts to internal reports, and from textbooks and even “non-fiction books” to articles in peer-reviewed academic journals.
I won’t get into the details of the peer-review process (which I also think should be overhauled), but the equation of academic research with articles in peer-reviewed academic journals seems to me way too narrow. A lot of research doesn’t lead to articles published in peer-reviewed academic journals… and some significant portions of peer-reviewed academic articles aren’t really based on brand new research.
In fact, according to a number of people I’ve heard discuss this, there are some clear examples of people who end up “milking” a research project to publish a series of articles which are more or less equivalent, in terms of the advancement of knowledge. It sounds like a harsh criticism but, unlike several people I’ve heard on the subject, I’m far from blaming them. I won’t even “blame the system.” But, if this “milking” happens, I do think there’s something skewed in the process.

I could even go into “citation impact” which was not only the basis for Google’s PageRank algorithm but is also amenable to the same kind of “gaming” as the type of “Search Engine Optimisation” which targets the very-same PageRank algorithm.
But I won’t. This post is probably long enough.

Point is, here, that professors who are hired as part of the tenure-system to “do research and teach classes” end up spending much of their time on other tasks.
In other words, there’s a “disconnect” between the way academic institutions function and the way they are expected to work. As long as academic institutions fit in their respective social contexts, the problem is merely one of expectations. But if, as I tend to think, academia as a whole is fitting less tightly in “today’s world,” the way academic research is conceived could afford some open-minded discussion.

Much of what I wrote here may sound like it’s strongly-stated. Harsh, even. But, in all honesty, I’m neither that cynical (anymore) nor that dogmatic about any of this. And, really, I’d be very happy to be proven wrong, in a thoughtful and convincing way. (I half-expect strong disagreement containing strongly-voiced statements of my “wrongitude.” These aren’t the ones I enjoy so much. I much prefer being shown that someone has understood what I meant and can find a more appropriate way to describe or explain things than what I proposed.)

Thoughts?

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