It is often said that universities have three purposes: 1) the education and formation of their students; 2) the scholarly inquiry of their faculty, and 3) service to the common good. Of course, all of these are synergistic. This is a post about scholarly inquiry or research, which could be viewed as a successor to the last post, which argued that research experiences are key to the future of our students.
The above trio of missions merely notes the need to support “the scholarly inquiry of faculty.” However, the key method of increasing the impact of universities to the common good requires that the results of the research be absorbed by the parts of the society that can profit from the research.
Research results that are undocumented or not disseminated are not too valuable. The notion evokes, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” If research results exist without anyone other than a lone scholar knowing about it, does it matter?
I have known many scholars in my lifetime. Some of the very brightest are not the most successful. They may follow and critique the latest developments in their field. They may be eloquent questioners in seminars and conferences. But they underperform in their own research. Some are hypercritical both of others’ work and of their own. Their critical powers are so acute that little they themselves do meets their own high standards. They fail to end research projects, seeking one more step that will fill in a gap, in an endless loop of polishing. They critique their own writing to such an extent that they actually produce very little.
Knowledge “discovered” by one scholar is not yet “research” in the full meaning of the word. It is a necessary step in the process of research and scholarship, but it is not sufficient. Research by universities is a vehicle to achieve the other two goals of a university — student formation and service to the common good. Hence, the goal of research or scholarship is not complete until their results are disseminated. Research is original inquiry whose results are shared so that they can become part of humanity’s documented knowledge base.
It is at the moment of dissemination that the rest of world can digest, evaluate, and make judgments about the marginal worth of the new product. Some products are judged as mere minor additions to a field’s understanding; others represent field-changing events. Sometimes the early judgment of the usefulness of a product are contradicted by later judgments. But without the dissemination step, little common good can result.
As we teach students how to form research questions or scholarly inquiries, how to engage in the various steps of ingesting information, and creating their own scholarly conclusions, we must also teach them that scholarship products must be freely shared, to fully complete the research step. Scholarly inquiry whose products are widely disseminated maximizes the chances of service to the common good.