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.”