Thoughts about academia`s obsession with quantity

by Tibor Hartel

I was just re-reading the paper of Joern Fischer and his colleagues about academia`s obsession with quantity, more papers, more grants and more everything. Here, I focus on one potential aspect of this issue. I am aware that here and there I may look crazy, and exaggerate, but the intention is to offer a short blog and maybe one short second of reflection.

Cover of the Rene Guenon`s book: ‘The Reign of Quantity and Signs of the Times’ (source: internet). Recommended for further reflections about quantity-quality issues in broader perspective.

I wonder to what extent this obsession is rooted in and induced by our new (researcher) population demographics. Yearly, thousands of ‘scientists’ may be produced in just one field of biology, in just one continent. Each being extremely enthusiastic, clever, inventive and willing to do great things in research and life. The sad news is that each of them will not end up being a successful ecologist. And this is not because they don`t deserve it. No, there is nothing personal. It is even worse: we may be (and I am sorry for being so direct) too many. The researcher population is growing, resources are scarce, and it is already stressed by its own demography.

We all feel the symptoms of this, let me enumerate just few: the review system is increasingly random (excellent papers being rejected without review while other papers go under review). This randomness makes difficult to publish even good stuff. There are new journals available every week almost (each aiming to be revolutionary), and new journal initiatives, as a response to the growing population of … manuscripts. Permanent jobs are rare resources today in this field (postdocs positions increasing?). I even feel that ‘transdisciplinary science’ may flourish, to an unknown degree, as a result of the above mentioned population demographics: being transdisciplinary allows scientist to pass the border of the ‘science habitat’ and establish outside academia.

One can feel that such an environment is full with pain and frustration. The strong natural selection processes acting on each member of this growing and crowding researcher population. In any other animal species, e.g. rats, such a crowding certainly would select for behaviours and morphs which are not ‘normal’. We know this from Darwin and subsequent works. Below some abnormal behaviours in science (there may be other, more proper examples too) selected in and by the overcrowded researcher population: The ‘obsession with quantity’, described by Joern and his colleagues. The goal of science changes in an overcrowded scientist population: generating valuable knowledge may not be the main objective, but papers which cease being a means (through which knowledge is communicated) and become the goal. In this way, papers are displays of alpha ranking and the most highly ranked members of the community are given more (re)production rights via grants, PhD students and permanent positions. The selection of PhD students (future researchers) is interesting too: image is valued, the created noise and the ability to sell (in other words, the ability of the candidate to capture what the alpha fe/male want from her/him and act accordingly in order to get the position). Being silent and humble is not valued – such people are generally not noticed (of course, noisy people can be humble and clever too…but the selection criteria is the noise and not always the humility and wisdom behind, and that is the problem).

If the scientific products of our days are the result of the struggle for life (in its Darwinian sense), induced and controlled by the demographic context (i.e. the result of an abnormal behaviour, induced by an abnormal situation, basically), how we can ever expect a society to take us (and our big explosions, i.e. papers) seriously?

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6 thoughts on “Thoughts about academia`s obsession with quantity

  1. Perhaps one way to solve this is to encourage trained scientists into the non-profit world where research is driven not by dollars, not by the pressures of tenure track, not even by dollars (usually) but by mission (read: EFFICACY).
    With a doctorate in ecology at a public botanic garden I work with professional designers to create functional urban landscapes. I also find funding to research problems specific to design problems we encounter. So the research not only gets peer-review publication, but I get to see it put into action. Good way to keep research honest. And moreover I get to help create landscapes in less time than it takes to review the paper! Now, I confess I publish only one to four pubs per year, I won’t have the security of tenure, have limited respect from peers and a modest income. But I see the fruits of my labors beyond Google Scholar and get to help change the trajectory of a professional field.
    If graduates from other grad school were like my cohort – most wanted to change the world. Not to say you can’t following a conventional academic path. But the comparison of misery I witness in those who have stayed in academia compared to those of us who didn’t has been a revelation to me and potentially presents a choice in career paths for others.

  2. Most of my life I do research as hobby. The main profession was teaching. 2-3-4 papers per year seem to be healthy, in times when your main preoccupation is actually to practice. I recognize this in the old Hungarian (I always come with these examples, sorry, but I know only this, so I give it example) times, when people who published were all practicioners too. And they wrote in the paper, how many years they practiced to come put with that knowledge and perspective. In their case too, the main job was practice, and not research publication. If we look seriously to the issue, it seems that that should be the normal way, basically. Only by exercise you can know something, you ground, embed yourself in that problem, and especially in the associated realities. Your words start to get weight. Romanians would say: you indeed say something, not just speak.

    • Tibor I only just noticed your May 25th reply. I’m on vacation and chance to reflect further. From your last comment it would seem therefore that society should encourage ecology practitioners to dedicate some time to research and publication. One overriding issues I think is that they needn’t be ecologists – but ecological engineers, landscape architects, horticulturists etc. Many other professions – engineering, chemical, pharmaceutical all have research and development programs. Why not landscape design/conservation? Here in USA other industries (chemical in particular) hold sway over landscapes and effectively discourage innovative sustainable design (think of the lawn industry). Also worrying is that the landscape architecture profession isn’t always accountable and makes claims about landscape performance which not always tested (think of green roofs).
      I like your Hungarian example –sounds perfect to me. Maybe soon I’ll start my own non-profit which does design, practice, education and research, beyond what I do currently. Something to chew on.
      BTW I guess you’re in Europe (??) I’m presenting at the first Urban Ecology Conference in Berlin at the end of July if you (or anyone reading this) is nearby.

  3. Totally agree, can’t wait to get out of the f****** madness, have been brainwashed to have been in it this long! Regards.

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