February 15, 2010

Paper Tigers and Sour Grapes

Why do universities exist ? At the most abstract level, academic institutions are supported because it is believed that new thoughts and ideas that emerge from them will lead to better standards of life and living in the the civil society that funds the creation and sustenance of these institutions. These thoughts and ideas are in the form of new knowledge that is both created and disseminated in an efficient manner and this dual role, namely creation and dissemination, is structured as research and teaching. Hence the faculty of an academic institution is expected to generate new thoughts and ideas through original research and ensure that not only these ideas, but other equally useful ideas generated elsewhere, at other institutions, is communicated to the students in a lucid and interesting manner. Hence a good academician is expected to contribute both to research as well as to teaching -- plus of course the inevitable overhead of adminstrating a complex institution so that it can do its primary roles in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

If we leave aside administrative duties, then what distinguishes a good academician from the not-so-good ? Obviously we are left with the two other functions : research and teaching, but more often than not, faculty is evaluated -- both during new recruitment and during 'promotion' -- on the quality of research, rarely on the ability to teach. This is a dubious yardstick but even it is not -- and I am not admitting that it is not dubious -- then the next shadow of doubt is cast by the metrics used to gauge the quality of research : the number of publications in peer reviewed journals. This leaves us with two questions namely (a) Is the number of publications a fair metric for the quality of research ? and (b) Should research be the only yardstick for faculty evaluation ?

A little thought will reveal that the two questions are  independent but let us address the second one first. The obvious answer is that research should not be the only yardstick -- Isaac Newton was a terrible communicator while George Gamow and Martin Gardener were wonderful teachers but were not known for any great discovery. [ OK, Gamow introduced the idea of a Big Bang ... ] The not so obvious answer is that we agree that teaching is important but we do not have a universally acceptable yardstick to measure teaching skills but since we do have one for research quality, let us use that one anyway. But what is this universally acceptable yardstick for research quality ? Oh, the number of publications of course ! ... and that is where the second question folds into the first.

So is the number of publications a reliable measure of the quality of research ? Before articulating my answer let me state up front that in a post-graduation career spanning more than a quarter of a century, I have  published three papers in peer-reviewed journals (of which one happens to be "national" one, much to the chagrin of our "international"ists ) Compared to the dozens, if not 70, 80, 150+ papers published by some of my colleagues, this is peanuts but instead of hanging my head in shame I have this intrepid desire to carry out a thought experiment.

Let me create a magic broom with which I can sweep away ( or expunge ) any peer-reviewed academic paper from all repositories on this planet and then see what happens when I use this broom. It is my conjecture ( if not my firm belief) that if I were to sweep away 75% of all papers published till date, the world will not know the difference ! Raise that figure to 90% and the world will be slightly worse off. Raise that to 99% and the world will be signficicantly poorer and of course if we go to 100% then civilisation as we know it will obviously collapse into depths of misery and despair. So it is not that publications are pointless -- but the vast majority is ! But then why this proliferation of trash ?

The answer is of course obvious to anyone in academia -- people publish because it is the only currency that we have to purchase recognition. It is the only currency that is freely convertible to permanent faculty positons and since all of us need a stable income ( and by extension, a stable lifestyle) that is the currency that we need to earn and and hoard.

Or do we ? For a beggar on the road, a rupee is very valuable but for a millionnaire an extra rupee or two is hardly of any significance. It has no impact on the quality of his life. So could be the case for someone who has reached the peak in academics -- which incidentally is not too high, since you cannot go beyond being a professor in any case. Once you have climbed onto the high tabletop of the academic plateau and you have no inclination to seek another job elsewhere, then earning anything more in the currency of peer-reviewed publications is of minimal or marginal economic value.

One could of course argue that economic value is not the only value that one should be concerned with. In Maslow's heirarchy, the need to be recognised by one's peers is the one that comes after one has been able to satisfy one's basic economic needs and publishing papers fulfills that need -- to be able to pin medals on one's chest. But are these medals like the Param Vir Chakra ? Or trinkets like the Padma Bhushan ?

Going back to my theory of 75% trash, the vast majority of papers fall into the trinket category .... created, not through the art of real "oil-on-canvas" research but, through the craft of "patched-collage" work. Publishing papers is now more of a craft where one has to meticulously read through legions of past papers, find one small niche that everyone has somehow overlooked and plug it with great  hype, hoopla and fanfare -- and if you can form a cartel of mutual "admirers" who will refer to each other's papers with circular citations, then your citation index can be driven up as well. Another analogy would be to compare publications to locating and repairing potholes on an existing road while leaving the great task of building that new road through the mountains to that 1% of the publishing population.

But if publications are really all that worthless then  (a) why do universitities continue to use them for evaluation and (b) why do people who do not need publications continue to seek them ? The answer to both questions is that they know of no other way !  Great research -- the result of that blinding flash of intuition or insight -- is rare after the age of 30 and this means that most of the papers that fall in the essential 1% category would have been among the authors first few papers.After that art gives way to craft and professors who really do not need to publish any more trash find themselves increasingly incapable of doing anything else -- they are trapped in a zone of comfort. And a lot of that comfort comes from the legions of apprentices -- research scholars and junior faculty -- who are now available to carry on with the craft of assembling papers and the luxury of being to able to append your name to the product of someone else's craftsmanship. This then is the nursery from where a doyen of academia generates his brood of 50,60, 100 papers.

Moreover it is this same doyen who, freed from the need to think about anything original, is now responsible for the administration in the university -- perhaps as the head of the department or involved with the recruitment or promotion of other faculty members. Can he think of any criterion other than the number of publications ? Unlikely ...  and that answers the first question and explains a university's addiction to the publications as a yardstick to measure the quality of research.

So is there an alternative ?

As a late entrant to academia, my external, industrial perspective tells me that there is a world of innovation that exists outside the closed of peer-reviewed journals. As a computer programmer, I have come across many new and exciting things, not in journals but on the web and and only a  handful of these things can track back to journal. In fact the Communications of the ACM, the premier society of Computer Scientists, tracks only a handful of papers in its vast digital archives and this is what most of us read anyway. On the flip side some of the most interesting and useful things that I have done would never ever be published in any journal but nevertheless they have been appreciated and praised by clients, friends, acquaintances and peers.  Traditional academics may be reluctant to classify what happens in this world as  research but  if we were to go back to the definition of the term in the first paragraph of this essay ---   as the fountainhead of  thoughts and ideas that lead to better standards of life and living  -- then the reluctance is neither defensible nor acceptable ! Honestly speaking,  the excitment of working with new and innovative ideas -- without the claustrophobic constraint of having to have your work formally approved by anonymous peers of dubious competence and capability -- is an exhilaration by itself.

But you can feel this rush of adrenaline if and only if you have transgressed the need to be appreciated by your peers and reached that next level of Maslow -- where you yourself is your own motivation to push into areas that you think are worthy of your interest. If your peers -- and the little journals that they fret and preen over  -- do not care about your thoughts and ideas, then sorry,  it is their problem, not yours !!

This then is the level at which a senior academician -- and hopefully juniors too, in the future -- should be in when he engages in research but to honestly be in this state he must guard against two major temptations : the temptation to be arrogant and dismissive of others and the temptation of sinking into intellectual lethargy and stupor. Then and only then can he ignore the species of panthera tigris papyrii -- paper tigers -- and tell them on their face that their grapes are indeed sour.


Katha said...

Agreed Prithwis’da – 100%.

Remember reading the same somewhere by the historian Tapan Ray Chaoudhury (If I’m not mistaken, it’s in “Bangalnaama”) –

According to him, this “Publish or Perish” frenzy just ruined the quality of research and the day way of assessing performance in academia became dependant on the number of pages published….the outcome was catastrophic.

Ashutosh Sarkar said...

Although you have raised few valid points but do not agree in discounting the so called 'paper tigers' merely because of low utility of their papers(I define 'paper tigers' not by quantity but by quality.) I obviously at the same time do not underestimate the value of contributions in terms of innovations made in real-life practice. A similar thing happens with entrepreneurship also. Just because that entrepreneurship efforts has high failure rates we should not discount the importance of entrepreneurship. Similarly Academic research also have a very very low conversion rate but it is also true that some of the greatest ideas have come from academic research. You will find that many of the ideas floated through academic research has seen its utility after many decades. Take, for example,Supply Chain Management (my research area and I admit that I have not done anything great. But one of my mathematical blah blah has been picked by some MNC in Australia and is trying to implement it in their processes), the concept was floated long back by the academic community 60 years back by Forrester (it appeared as a academic research paper in Management Science and that was followed by many other publications) but the acceptance came only in the late 90s. Another example I often give to highlight the value of academic research is that once Thomas Alva Edison when asked about his inventions and research he said 'I invented thousand ways not to produce the bulb'. Any process will produce a lot of wastages but it doesn't mean we should discount the positive side of the process i.e. the output. Similarly world's highly regarded B-schools, both by aspirants as well as the practitioners, have plenty of such 'paper tigers'. In fact that is one of their strength in addition to their ability to convert the theory into practice (a recent example is General Electric's restructuring) but it does not mean that all of their papers are useful.