Re-imagining scholarship

From observing actual academic practice it is clear that the ethical responsibility for communicating research findings is to produce peer-reviewed publications in academic journals, to speak about our research at professional conferences to our research (and sometimes clinical) peers, and to provide letters summarising findings to our research participants. More engaged academics will also “disseminate” their research findings through various broadcast mechanisms: traditional media coverage via television, radio and newspapers, providing information via websites, blog posts, and social media. The researcher role is to speak, the general audience can listen (and perhaps, to a limited degree, ‘comment’, facebook-style at the bottom of the thread). Academics, even those working in applied areas like psychology or rehabilitation, publish many papers that have at best distant relevance to the world beyond their research community. When research is relevant to practice, it takes many, many years before that research translates into differences in practice, if it ever does. Meanwhile, from my informal observation academics for the most part do not seem to regard these things as problems, or certainly not as their problems.

As a clinical psychologist who received training with a strong lean towards cognitive–behavioural explanations of behaviour, I tend to look for the contingencies acting on people’s behaviour—that is, the rewards and punishments that shape what people do. When I see something that at face value looks dysfunctional, experience has taught me to look for the ways in which that behaviour is actually functional for that person. Many countries have over the last decade or two developed systems for measuring and ranking academic departments (or in the case of New Zealand, individual researchers) in terms of their research activity or productivity. In New Zealand, this is called the Performance-Based Research Fund, over the Tasman they have the Excellence in Research for Australia system, while in the United Kingdom it is the Research Excellence Framework. These systems have been designed with the deliberate intention of rewarding research activity and productivity—to direct government funds to the places that are producing research of higher quality (and in greater quantity). The UK system for instance describes the top ‘four star’ level as being ‘quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour’. On the face of it, this doesn’t sound like a bad thing. Furthermore, to a greater degree than the other systems, the UK system has introduced a specific focus on the real-world impact of research. Their current six-year assessment period culminates in their assessment exercise in 2014, so we are yet to see the circle close on this new approach to be able to evaluate the effectiveness of it.

Whether the unit of assessment is a department (UK, AU) or an individual researcher (NZ), the evaluation of both quality and impact is on research—“original, world leading, paradigm shifting, internationally recognised research”. Yet the more I think about this, and the more I work with our clinical partners, the more I wonder whether we’ve lost track of the original purpose of research activity. Universities, certainly, should provide research-led teaching—something enshrined in the Education Act here in New Zealand. But in glorifying the research process, we have forgotten that research should be a means, and not the end. Indeed, it seems to me that we have systematically turned our scholars into mere researchers. A scholar is a learned person with deep knowledge in a subject area. Faced with a real-world problem to which there is a known solution, a scholar would be pleased to share their knowledge resulting in an effective improvement in the life of their community. A pragmatic researcher, in contrast, faced with a real-world problem to which there was already a known solution would arguably see no role for themselves—for even the evaluation paradigms that value the impact of research only value demonstrating the impact of my research (or “our” research, for departments). “Merely” solving a real-world problem by applying the knowledge of others does not rate highly in research assessment paradigms, and would be seen as community service and not considered research activity.

Like a “researcher", a “scholar" would have advanced research capabilities, certainly—but these would merely be one tool at their disposal. And increasingly, given the vast quantity of research-based knowledge that has not translated into practice, a scholar would surely hang up their research toolkit for a good while and muck-in on the less glamorous but far more impactful process of putting what we already know into practice. Unfortunately, this is the last thing a rational researcher in our current research environment would choose to do—or at least, they would do so at their own career peril—because it will not produce “research” that is “original” or “world-leading in terms of originality”, even if it is highly significant, community-enhancing, and done with the rigour of a true scholar.

Just think about that for a minute...

Surely—something needs to change.