Higher education researchers ‘stuck on their own islands’

Analysis of 17,000 articles in the field finds lack of integration between different areas of study

February 14, 2020
Castaway multitasks
Source: iStock/PeskyMonkey

Higher education researchers are too “stuck” on their own “islands” in terms of the topics they cover, and the gaps between these silos are growing, research suggests.

Using text mining to analyse the abstracts of about 17,000 papers from 1991 to 2018, scholars mapped the different topic areas explored in higher education research and how these relate to each other.

According to the study by researchers at Belgium’s Ghent University, it is possible to split the field into about 30 different topics covering three main areas: research on individuals such as students and academics; research on institutions and higher education systems; and other topics such as research ethics and those specific to subject disciplines.

The authors found that research on some topics, such as international student mobility, was understandably on the rise, while others, like the effect of parenting styles on student performance, had waned over time.

But when they examined the degree to which different topics clustered together, they discovered a lack of integration between some themes.

“Our analysis, for example, suggests that there are very few studies in the field of research on higher education that combine a focus on pedagogy with a focus on racial and ethnic minorities.

“The lack of research combining both sets of topics is remarkable as both topics are very often combined in the sociology of education,” they write, adding that addressing such gaps could “provide a lot of opportunities for research”.

The way topics were clustered had remained relatively constant for the past 30 years, the study adds, suggesting “that higher education researchers are ‘stuck on their island’. Indeed, topics that were not combined in the nineties are still not combined two decades later.”

In addition, the authors also found that individual articles had become less diverse in terms of the topics that they covered.

“The combination of the systematic clustering of topics and the trend of specialisation yields an interesting, though bleak, conclusion: while the islands making up the scattered field of research on higher education are relatively stable over time, they are drifting further apart. Indeed, it seems that our field becomes even more scattered and disintegrated over time,” they add.

In a blog for the Society for Research into Higher Education, the paper’s authors, Stijn Daenekindt and Jeroen Huisman, say reversing the trends would not be “straightforward”, but they suggest some ideas to improve the situation, including encouraging researchers to use analytical techniques from other disciplines, and generating more debate within journals.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: HE researchers are ‘stuck on their own islands’

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Reader's comments (1)

And this is surprising why? In a competitive "academic market" with a focus on "publish or perish" as well as "novel and breakthrough" research all the time but limited resources and positions you need to carve out a viable niche for yourselves. In order to survive in this game these niches need to be guarded jealously and defended ruthlessly. This leaves little space or motivation for cross- or interdisciplinary joint-up research and debate/dialogue.

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