Young academics’ research ‘elegant but not interesting’

But professor says Trump presidency might now provide ‘incentive’ for junior scholars to ask ‘important questions’

February 23, 2017
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Yawn ‘[When] picking up academic journals and looking at the titles of the articles, a feeling of intense boredom washes over me,’ said one scholar

Young researchers at Western universities are increasingly writing “safe” and “conservative” papers due to the pressure to get published, according to a scholar who has described the “intense boredom” he feels when reading the titles of journal articles.

Richard Robison, emeritus professor in the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University, said that many academic papers are “methodologically elegant but they’re not interesting” and that “debates and arguments are going out of Western universities”.

“I was at a conference recently and there were all these bright young academics there and I was just struck by how cautious they were,” he told Times Higher Education.

“Ironically, the people who are writing the most outrageous stuff tend to be older academics who’ve got nothing to lose, who can publish in these journals simply because of their reputation.”

He compared the approach of junior academics to divers in the Olympics opting to choose dives with “a low degree of difficulty”.

“A higher degree of difficulty [means] you could really bomb out. And these [academics] were all going for the low degree of difficulty, writing very conservative things, not sticking their neck up over the parapet because they know that that’s the safest way to get published and they know they’re not going to come across people protecting their turf or anything like that if they’re non-threatening,” he said.

He added that academia “rewards” people who do “careful” research but that the system could change if some journals became “dedicated to more risky and innovative approaches to things”.

“I [find] that [when] picking up academic journals and looking at the titles of the articles, a feeling of intense boredom washes over me,” he said.

However, he said that Donald Trump’s election as US president may be a “game changer” for the research conducted by young academics.

“If anything was going to be an incentive for people to come out and write what they thought was really important...and not just things that are going to be published, it’s what’s going to be happening in America over the next few years,” he said, adding that “journals might be forced into accepting articles that are asking important questions”.

“My feeling is with the rise of someone like Trump, you’ve got to look at interesting questions, not just the number of people who voted for so-and-so in the upper house of the Tasmanian parliament...which is the sort of thing that is over-represented here [in Australia] because it’s safe,” he continued.

“Tough times can bring interesting writing and journals may be more interested in what’s being said rather than how it’s being said.”

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Reader's comments (3)

“Ironically, the people who are writing the most outrageous stuff tend to be older academics who’ve got nothing to lose, who can publish in these journals simply because of their reputation.” There's absolutely no irony here, it's precisely the condition a two-tier/tenured-vs-precarious research culture is designed to create. It should also be noted that what gets published is often the result of a peer review process that can iron out the radical as a condition of publication. But equally, bold research is being done, sometimes it's not being published in 'these journals' precisely because of the factors mentioned (some of which are acknowledged in the article), so alternative venues, including new open access platforms, blogs, and other less traditional outlets are used to put out this work.
What is happening in journals is only reflecting what is happening in the universities themselves. I am lucky to have some astonishingly radical tutors, and to be surrounded by similarly radical, critical peers (for want of a less managerial phrase). Universities themselves are progressively being run like businesses, and the neoliberal attitude of exchange is unfortunately all too pervasive, within the universities, among students etc. This sort of environment discourages genuinely important work and research, and instead valorises what will make the beneficiaries of our universities a quick buck. Researchers similarly infected with this dangerous mindset will often curtail their own thought in order to succeed in their field, simply perpetuating academic competition, which involves reification and intellectual prostitution. Universities are meant to be for critical thought.
A colleague of mine in another department says if you're not re-writing the older academic stuff and patting one another on the back for "a job well done" by re-hashing the old stuff then you'll never get published in his field. He actually was rejected recently with new research on a topic that disputed an old theory, but was told that it was "too new" of an idea to have merit, even though the proof was there in the data. SO, I think it depends perhaps on the field, too.

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