Another dot in the blogosphere?

The research game (part 1)

Posted on: December 8, 2014

There is a game that university academics play. The game has a strict selection process and the chosen must play by the rules.

However, like casinos, the house always wins, the players think they win, and the players’ stakeholders tend to lose.

Casino Velden Panorama by geek7, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  geek7 

The game is called research and publishing. It is a game that academics play because they are expected to. Very few seem to challenge its rules and the ethics of playing the game the same old way.

Anyone can conduct research without getting a grant or by paying out of pocket, but why would they? They get more points in their appraisals if they successfully apply for grant money.

The money comes from a corporation or a government body or the university itself, and there are often stringent demands when applying for funds. That is a good thing because the money ultimately comes from the taxpayer and layperson.

What might be less clear is how the money benefits these stakeholders even if researchers have to justify their research. Leaders and managers of universities and funding agencies recognize this ethical issue and take administrative and policy measures to address it. There are strict review processes, rules to protect human subjects, regular reporting processes, expectations of social responsibility or scaling up, etc.

But with the way the game is played in reality, the benefit to stakeholders seems tertiary, if at all. The research money primarily benefits researchers and journal publishers, and secondarily benefits a research ecosystem.

Research money helps some academic staff publish papers and get promotions. If enough of them do these, they raise the profile and international ranking of the university. Research outputs go to journals and publishers profit from the work of researchers. These are the primary beneficiaries.

In order to conduct research and publish, academic staff need to buy equipment, hire staff, outsource some services, arrange for conference travel, and so on. This could benefit some stakeholders by providing employment and creating a demand for assorted services. These are the secondary beneficiaries.

But research is typically funded over only two or three years. This means that funding cycles are tight and a researcher needs to be creative with resources and/or apply for multiple grants if s/he wants to sustain the research.

Sustaining a study is particularly important in educational or social studies type of research because of the subjectivity and complexity of human factors. Such studies also might have interventions like technology use which take time to develop, implement, and revise.

Sometimes researchers move from one grant to another (and therefore from one research topic to another) like slash-and-burn farmers move from plot to plot. Both leave damage in their wake. In the case of educational research, it might be schools, teachers, and students who have no support after the study team pulls out.

Closed circles are created when researchers team up with one or a few partner teachers or schools. If there is harm, it is contained. If there is good, it is highly contextualized and difficult to generalize.

The process of publishing the results or impact of research is also closed. More thoughts on that tomorrow.

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