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Working Alone; Working Together

One of the interesting attributes of scholarly life that I’ve observed over time is the variety of ways disciplines conduct their scholarship.

Some scholars in the humanities work totally by themselves, creating new forms of literary products. Others toil alone in archives, gathering the information that allows them new descriptions and interpretations of past events. Those in the visual arts create objects often in solitary work. Others engage in deep reading of ancient texts, attempting to discern meaning and understand connections among different works. Scientists who focus on theory development often work at their desk, by themselves, discovering mechanisms that affect observable phenomena through analytic work.

At the same time, other fields work in teams of researchers, with each researcher assigned a role to design a project, conduct the inquiry, analyze the results, and disseminate the findings. Teams can be large (a 2015 article in experimental physics has over 5,000 authors); teams can be small. The teams often entail collaboration across disciplines. The focus of the team is often a problem that requires knowledge of multiple disciplines. Sometimes the problem is “solved” by creating an object or process; this is commonly the case in engineering. Sometimes the problem cannot really be “solved,” but the group work is focused on discovering ever more deeper insights into the issue.

Some of the “teaminess” of scholarship is dictated by the nature of observation or inquiry within the field. It’s difficult to be a solitary observational astronomer because of the need to collaborate on the use of very, very large facilities used to gather data on the nonearth entities. Large accelerators like CERN cannot be operated by a single investigator. Large scale social and economic surveys need teams of experts in statistical design, measurement, fieldwork logistics, analysis, and modeling. Drug discovery requires both basic lab work, but also the design of clinical trials, and clinician evaluation.

Those happiest in fields that require solitary scholarship seem to thrive in those times of quiet, individual work. Those happiest in fields that require teams seem to like the interchange of unlike minds.

A related attribute of team-oriented fields is that external funding is often needed to support the different people involved. Grants and contracts often involve competitive and peer-review processes. This implies that not all good ideas are pursued, but bad ideas (in the opinion of peers in the same field) are almost never pursued. These grants or contracts also often enforce a discipline of deadlines and schedules, which moves along the work. Unfunded solitary work is driven by the time and discipline of the individual scholars. They choose the project to pursue without censoring devices of peer review at the moment of inception of a project. Peer review comes heavily at the output stage of the scholarship.

For universities that want to integrate education and research, these different styles pose different challenges. Can research teams integrate students into their groups and offer valuable experiences? How can students best learn how to be a scholar in a field where scholarship is a solitary act?

Another interesting problem for academic campuses is how to evaluate the product of solitary scholars as well as team scholars. It is commonly the case that scholars working in teams produce more research products per unit of time. However, evaluating the contribution of each researcher in the team is more difficult than is true of solitary scholars. Generally, evaluations seek to find examples of leadership of the faculty member on some projects and non-leader contributions to others. Clever network analyses of faculty who are “magnets” for collaborations often identify some who offer a perspective of ubiquitous value to many fields (these are often technical). In a real sense, such team members make their colleagues better by their contribution of skills and techniques to help multiple disciplines. They need to be valued for this contribution, in my opinion.

For a university, the point of these observations is that different styles of scholarship contribute to the diversity of thought on university campuses. They should be honored and supported. Our evaluative processes need to be sensitive to these differences in order to preserve this diversity.

3 thoughts on “Working Alone; Working Together

  1. Good discussion of an important topic. I’ve never been sure sure when I have to review a paper how much is attributed to each of the some fifty authors!

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