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Research without a Product is not yet Research

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.

12 thoughts on “Research without a Product is not yet Research

  1. Granted. But could we now complicate this by what we know about structural racism and structural sexism? Yes, you are correct that some thinkers are far too dismissive of and hypercritical of their own work and hold it back.
    But as one of my very few women Profs advised me in grad school: Women hold back far too much, until they think their work is perfect; but, on the other hand, they have good reason to hold back. For men get a pass for work in progress when women don’t.

    If that is true for white women, how much more so for persons of color.
    I have to assume if this has been true

    • I have certainly seen the structural issues Marilyn raises operate in my own field. They sometimes operate subtly, but they exist and have pernicious effects.

      There are also significant disparities in access to the (relatively) uninterrupted time that is required to turn research into a disseminated product. One source of these, although not the only one, is unequal – sometimes dramatically unequal – teaching and service responsibilities.

      • I quite agree that structural conditions–including those within our own university–facilitate research for some more than others. The new FTNTL framework, for instance, while a great improvement in many areas, now evaluates a whole group of professors based on teaching with research very much on the side. Yet research as we know is key for teaching undergrads and especially graduate students.

  2. Not only widely disseminated, but strategically disseminated!

    From the International Food Policy Research Institute, we sought to place the research report on the desk of the policymaker or the policy advisor as well as on the library shelf or the office bookshelf. We also taught courses to facilitate the policy advisor learning how to devise policies from research results.

    Don’t leave the using of the research results to chance!

  3. An interesting post ! Research should indeed be shared (particularly if taxpayers are subsidizing it) but that doesn’t mean it is used for the common good. > 95 % of the world’s scientists that have researched the heck out of climate issues for decades have concluded (and published ad nauseum) that climate change is real, that humans are causing it, etc. Yet a good chunk of society simply states that all these serious scholars are wrong as we live in denial clinging to a dead end fossil fuel economy. As another example, labs like mine crank out well published scholarship about new drugs and other control measures that could cut deaths from malaria by more than 1/2 in a couple years time. Yet, progress over the past 10 – 15 years by the PMI and others notwithstanding, western society either lacks the will to implement many discoveries related to diseases of the developing world, or feels that the cost of saving hundreds of thousands of young children’s lives in poor countries is better spent doing other stuff. The point being that admonishing researchers to produce more product may or may not get the job done on behalf of the common good … to do common good typically requires alot more than the best efforts of productive researchers. Perhaps students need to learn this ugly truth as well.

  4. Paul, that’s why we need research-based advocacy organizations such as IFPRI that have the reputation of being non-partisan and non-biased (except in being transparently biased against hunger and poverty). For example, IFPRI (in cooperation with University of Zambia) researched the agricultural extension situation in Zambia and made recommendations that were then adopted by the Government of Zambia (even though the recommendations opposed an extension technology promoted by The World Bank which has influence over IFPRI through its chairing of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research). Through what organizations does GU disseminate research results? Is that decision left to the individual research department, the individual researcher, …, the Provost?

  5. By the way, the philosophical culture of researchers also can affect the dissemination or lack of dissemination of research. Some researchers think that they would be soiling their role as researchers by stepping over the line into policy advocacy. Those researchers would see the product as a research report rather than see the product as a strategically disseminated research report.

    Even at IFPRI, some of our researchers thought that going beyond publishing descriptive facts and academic projections would somehow violate a sense of being neutral and unbiased (as if choosing a research topic didn’t in itself reflect a bias about what is important). Whereas comprehensive policy analysis calls for conducting descriptive analysis, predictive analysis, normative analysis and prescriptive analysis; those not wanting to be soiled by advocacy wouldn’t provide normative analysis (i.e., explicitly stating how alternative policies and results fit or don’t fit with the values of various stakeholders) and wouldn’t provide prescriptive analysis (even though we often encountered policymakers who would plead, “just tell us what to do”).

    The mindset of the researcher can limit the comprehensiveness of the research product, in addition to affecting the extent of product dissemination.

    • Excellent points Neal, we should have lunch when convenient. Most researchers I know can be timid when it comes time to cross the line between the lab and policy advocacy because they are afraid of being caught up in time commitments that take away from their time to do research. It is a cultural thing (at least in science) that when you are trained you are trained to guard your time jealously; the rationale being that if you don’t do your research than who will ? But I think it’s also quite true that if you don’t better disseminate your research who will, and if that research suggests policy than who better to advocate ? I’m not alone in that thinking. We could certainly use more structures and procedures to help researchers tackle these goals …

  6. Paul, time constraints are a tremendous concern! At IFPRI, the researchers trusted the Outreach Division to strategically disseminate their research results in addition to most research projects having a project outreach component to the research project. USAID, Rockefeller Foundation, Swiss Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid, etc. would fund the outreach components! During my many years at IFPRI, I was a researcher and an “outreacher” who sometimes requested time from other researchers for policy analysis course presentations and for collaborations on producing training products (case studies that involved converting their research reports into training manuals).

    Establishing a university-wide outreach program and/or department-based outreach programs would be an interesting topic for a lunch discussion.

    By the way, Paul, my outreach to Zambia (during a conference’s tea-break with the prime minister, for example) often included recommending the tackling of the following obstacles to agricultural development: lack of entrepreneurial spirit (especially, aversion to risk taking), few hours of daily schooling (for example, two hours with one hour being P.E.), and diseases (especially, trypanosomes that prevented oxen-use in valley regions and malaria that limited the workweek for our local research staff and for all of the other locals).

  7. Guess you could say that research without marketing and distribution is kinda like a tree falling in the forest with no one there! Just saying-that sound NOT heard has no value

  8. It is true that research should be published and disseminated. I don’t know anyone who thinks otherwise. However, there is one factor the Provost does not mention: some research, in some fields, is published in book form (this is often because long-term research is necessary to support lengthy, complex arguments in the complex context of prior research; it is also because of traditions in those fields). Books, then, are those “trees,” that the Provost talks about falling in the forest: they take many years, sometimes decades to grow. By comparison, the articles that are the main product of the sciences and many social science fields, are like shrubs and bushes. They, too, are research, but they reach fruition a lot faster (and arguably make less “noise” when they drop).

    This understanding that scholarship about more than speed and quantity of titles is important to point out in the Georgetown context, because right now of the 15 people on the University Rank and Tenure Committee, only 1 or 2 members come from book-producing fields. Do they fully appreciate what it takes to research and write a book? You cannot judge only by speed, or by citations in journals or Google or whatever convenient but biased and inaccurate metrics non-experts on the UCRT reportedly like to consult. That’s why we go to outside reviewers: they know the field, they know the background to the scholar’s published work, they understand the full context of a book and its value. That value cannot always be apprehended quickly by inexpert eyes, nor can it be produced quickly. The recommendations of outside reviewers on tenure cases thus should not be routinely overturned by the UCRT or casually dismissed by the Provost, as seems to be happening now.

    It’s all very well to say unpublished research is not research, but can the provost see the forest for the trees?

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