Rethinking Research “Productivity”

From Library Babel Fish, July 27, 2010

A recent blog post at the University of Venus, “When Tenure Disappears,” argues that PhD training is limited to training people to become future faculty members, emphasizing rigorous but narrow preparation for jobs that no longer exist.

This made me think about a frustration I share with many librarians, the feverish amassing of publications that may never be read, published in journals that libraries can’t afford, churned out by unhappy and exhausted colleagues who feel they have no choice.

My frustration with graduate training is that from my (admittedly removed) perspective, scholars seem to be taught the ropes of building a career very thoroughly: which journals count, how to finely slice research into multiple publications, how to build a competitive CV. I get the impression PhD candidates are rarely prompted to ask themselves “so what?” unless it’s to build an argument in a grant proposal. When scientists are asked “but what does this actually mean?” they usually are able to connect the dots to an eventual cure for a disease, a longer-lasting battery, a more sustainable planet. They have to be able to do that; science is expensive, and funders want answers. So they connect the dots even if, in reality, they are doing basic science and have no idea what it will lead to.

For those who are not funded but need to demonstrate their expertise through publishing, the question – why is this research important? What difference will it make in the world? – is likely either be considered ludicrously romantic (“are you for real? this is how you play the game”) or an attack on intellectualism (“what is it for? Only a philistine would ask a question like that; I’m contributing an entirely new way of looking at this exquisitely wrinkled pea, but you obviously know nothing of recent developments in heuristic legumology.”)

My background is in literature, and I believe it matters as much as more obviously practical pursuits. I just don’t like to see my friends expend so much blood, sweat, and tears writing books that will be purchased by three dozen libraries in the world, or articles that will be inaccessible in more ways than one: too specialized for a non-expert to understand, published in a journal that’s available to a small handful of people. And it really bugs me because these are incredibly smart, articulate people who can be utterly fascinating on a range of topics that matter.

Just as I worry that we spend too much time teaching students to be students rather than to be free and inquiring human beings, I think we expend too much energy training scholars to be scholars, full stop. We value esoteric expertise to the extent that we declare ourselves incompetent to judge our colleagues’ work; instead, we outsource promotion and tenure to publishers, whose imprimatur is used to substitute for our judgment. Libraries are supposed to foot the bill, whether anyone wants to read this stuff or not. We could be doing something more productive, like enriching people’s lives or setting people’s imaginations on fire, but we’ve let ourselves define the word “productive” in very narrow and oversimplified quantifiable terms.

It makes me want to paraphrase T. S. Eliot: Where is the wisdom we’ve lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we’ve lost in productivity?