Academia’s obsession with quantity revisited

By Joern Fischer

A little while ago, together with my colleagues Euan Ritchie and Jan Hanspach, I led a paper entitled “Academia’s obsession with quantity”. This paper quickly became one of the most downloaded papers from TREE, and considering how short it is, it has clearly had “impact” (ironically, perhaps more so than its more constructive follow-up!).

With my own work having become busier than ever before, I thought it would be worthwhile to reflect on that paper. Many readers took it to be primarily a critique of people publishing large amounts. Now, given that my own publication record has increased in quantity (but not in quality?), it may seem that I was kind of the wrong person to make this argument. I’ve thought about whether this is a valid point – and if it is, what may have been the driver of me, too, becoming “obsessed” with quantity?

First of all, I think I never intended the paper to be primarily about publication output – but rather about the general addiction to more that seems widespread in academia. Just like when we wrote that paper, I still find it unhealthy that some university departments have meetings later than 5pm; and that much of what defines a good academic is how much time she (or more commonly, he) is willing to travel around and spend away from home (and family). Similarly, the general desire to be involved in everything whenever there is a new funding call strikes me as unhelpful. My primary critique is thus of the culture of busy-ness as an unchallenged, supposedly useful goal to pursue in its own right.

But being busy can also be a by-product of various other things. For example, one might be busy because good communication is time-consuming; or one might be busy because of trying to provide timely feedback to students; or because of putting much effort into designing a new course. This kind of being busy may result in a high quantity of outputs, or it might not. What’s more important, I think, is that in this case, being involved in everything, doing more, or having more, is not the goal in its own right.

The trouble is to tell the difference between being busy as a by-product versus being caught up in a culture of being too busy as a normal way of being. To me there’s only one solution: be vigilant that you don’t get sucked into a reward system you don’t actually believe in! In practice, this means saying “no” (a lot) to avoid chronic over-commitment; while still saying “yes” to those things that truly matter – even when you’re busy.

10 thoughts on “Academia’s obsession with quantity revisited

  1. Thanks Joern tis is interesting post, again! I think it is not so dramatic problem, at least based on what I experienced. I would even say, that if academics would be a little bit more ‘obsessed’, things would be better e.g. in RO! I love what I do, maybe Im obsessed with it, maybe the word ‘obsession’ may not be the best to characterize my (extraordinary!) relation(ship) with my job. But I want to move the problem from the ‘obsession’ axis (whatever that means) to an other axis: to feel privileged for the job I have. My job gives me an intellectual freedom which is not experienced by the great majority of my friends and other people who work in other fields (like in a factory etc.). They also go home late afternoon from work, but, not because they want it…but their bosses obligate them to work (basically for no salary), while the boss is enjoying family etc. And we are not talking about an insignificant minority here: we are the minority! Only imagining myself in such a position, creates me nightmare! Anyways, lets feel privileged to have the possibility to be obsessed with our job! Obsession is an option for us, while for many other jobs its not! I was treated by an ‘obsessed’ medical doctor (who indeed spent extra time in the hospital…simptoms you described) but interestingly, people love and respect him, and his family is proude on him! His wife told me ‘life with him is so unbelievably beautiful!’ Maybe not how much one is with the family is important, but, what is actually going one when they are together? (morning reflection, dont take it seriously) The word ‘obsession’ somehow gives a negative nuance to something which could be treated in the same manner as privilegial:) We could change the word obsession eg with passion, love, crazyness etc.

    • It’s an interesting topic, and so if I may think out loud and share, I agree Tibor that we are privileged to be able to do what we do now, which can be equal to saying – to flung ourselves into the work we love, heedless of time, and number of meals missed, and number of hours of foregone sleep (although I can never bring myself to say the same in terms of time with family lost). There is likely only a small percentage of the population that is privileged enough to engage in a job in which the degree of independence (e. g. independent thinking, opportunities to create something new whether an idea or a thing) is substantial. I can’t overstate how wonderful it is to do work where our passion meets the opportunity to live it out. But I think there is much to reflect on in Joern’s writing. Because the type of work we do is special (in that it is something we can be passionate about and be independent in), it makes it more relevant to talk about guarding from things that might go against the “grain/the essence” of our work. In much of what we do, we are not only guided by science and theories. We are as much guided by our principles and values. And when we begin to do things outside of these principles and values, there rises the need to pause and reflect about what we do and why we do it. To me, there is a kind of “essence” in our work that is easy enough to forget and violate when we allow ourselves to be overrun by demands (e. g. the next paper, the next conference, the next proposal) such as Joern described. And these demands are not bad at all. In fact, they are important elements in the institution that is research. But where they become an end in themselves, instead of the means toward the more meaningful end, we risk losing sight of the motivations, the passions, the inspirations, the reasons that drive us. It becomes a mere going-through-the-motion. It is one thing to have a hundred publications to our name, and quite another thing to know that some time, the work we did resulted to a real outcome, a real impact. And isn’t that impact, isn’t that dent, that realization that we made a little difference, that really fulfills us in the end and makes us say at the end of the day “It has been worth it.”? I would argue, it’s “that” which counts, more than the number of papers or conferences. People have different prefered ways of working. But the call of the blog above, which I think speaks to all, despite our different preferences, is to be more critical about the things we do, and to be more connected to our reasons for doing them – to say no, when we need to – because there are things in life, often the most important, that cannot be measured by numbers (although I completely agree that it takes time — ten thousand hours, is it? – to make an expert). – Aisa

      • And oh, it isn’t to say that there always has to be some beneficial end. Something as intrinsic in value as love for learning (which can also have utilitarian benefits) stands as sufficient reason to do so much of something for no other reason but that we are devoted to it, or that we enjoy it. But it brings one back to this — the reason why the deed, the work is done. I guess my bottomline is, it matters more, the “why” behind the things we do. – Aisa

  2. I agree with much of what Aisa wrote. I would only point to an idea — I can’t remember who I read it from — that we, as a society (or societies–both in the larger and in the scientific sense), have lost a sense of “enough-ness”.

    No matter how privileged one may be or how much one may love one’s job, there is likely an amount of it that should be considered “enough”. My mother wisely said to me as a child “You can’t make your happiness dependent on changing the world. It might change, or it might not, but you can’t wait to be happy until you find out.” Similarly, I think we can’t/shouldn’t make our happiness dependent on our productivity in terms of quantity–and we shouldn’t make our evaluations dependent on such, either! There must/should be an “enough” amount of work, an “enough” (or better, “balanced”) amount of time to oneself, with others; with family; volunteering; etc. Not because none of these things could reasonably wholly occupy you — but because *all of them could*.

    Finding “enough” is not easy. Arguably, whole sects and philosophies strive to find and define this. But the problem I believe Joern et al. are pointing to is that the very idea of “enough-ness” has been banished from our professional lives, and from our larger society. As much as we love our work, I think most of us realize that there is a point, somewhere, where we *should* call it a day, for the sake of family, recharging our own batteries, what have you.

    And I should add my own extra particular take here–we NEED more time to spend in (our own and other) communities, just *being*. Playing, eating, listening, crying, dancing, and *governing*. I do not believe our current levels of specialization are sustainable (cf. Joseph Tainter on complexity costs). Specialization is a great engine in capitalism, but I think it has gone beyond what is efficient, effective, or healthy. We all (or most of us) need to de-specialize a bit more, become more generalists, and develop a wider suite of interests and skills that we can spend time on, sometimes leisurely so, as David Orr observes can/should be true in agriculture:

    That piece, to my mind, is woefully under-cited.

    • Hi, ____! Sorry I didn’t get your name? Thank you for sharing David Orr’s piece. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, took me back to the kind of community I grew up in, and struck me with homesickness. My mother stays in our rural home and I call it our patch of green paradise in the world. She still picks vegetables from her backyard and shares with the neighbors, as they share their produce with her too. My happy memories rushed back as Orr described what it takes to live the rural life. I also remember how happy we all were reunited over the holidays in our small brown cottage. It is to me, the good life. But so many in my generation have had to leave home and move to the cities to find jobs (and I remain immensely grateful to find work in a still relatively rural area). In our context in the Philippines, this migration to the cities are partly influenced by the scarcity of decently paying jobs in the rural areas, the change in values and perceptions about what is good (towards materialism), and sometimes, just the mere desire for something different. But mostly, the first reason cited drives many Filipinos of my generation. I would think that the desire to live a more natural, simple life remains in many. But in the context of developing countries like the Philippines, sometimes it becomes inevitable to move with the mass towards the cities because of the necessity to earn, and because of the prevailing norm – that one has to work and help the family by providing for other family members. (But there are of course many other reasons for different people.) And driven by such a need, it becomes easy to be swept away by the urban lifestyle and to accept its conditions as given – traffic, long bus and train queues… small green spaces that are accessible to but a few. For one person struggling in the crowded, polluted city, it is easy to feel small and it becomes difficult to imagine that the city could change, and difficult still to imagine going to the old life at home when there are many family needs that must be met. For city dwellers who are comfortable and who have not known a different way of life, it is easy to not think about the impact of an urbanizing society and to miss the urgency of pursuing more sustainable ways of living. And then there are other people – the likes of David Orr that raise their voices so we can start reflecting. And I think bringing that kind of voice back to both urban and rural communities, making the message accessible so that we can also start asking the questions about our future can help raise a collective, critical consciousness about the implications of our current ways of living.

      I also love what you said about “enough-ness”. It takes a deep consciousness about who we are (that we are more than the things we produce), about what we value most (family, friends, solitude, fun, freedom, creativity, etc.), and about the realities of the world — (how our work systems assess us for the number of things we produce and that it will take time to change but that we do not need to be sucked in to it) can help individuals and groups determine what is enough. It needs courage to write as David Orr, as Joern, as you, and many others have done by raising these questions; and courage still to live by one’s principles, when it means saying no, when it goes against popular norm. But that is how change happens.

    • Thanks Jahi – I also was thinking about this and similar things (like Facebooking etc.:))) For sure, if one is constrained to do a thing is one thing while there are different sets of challenges when there is no such constrain from outside but you should constrain yourself (sugar consumption etc.). Still, I continue to see this issue from a positive perspective as there is still a tiny proportion of the society facing this problem of self controlling. Even for those, it should be their option and way to realize what and when is enough, I guess. I am talkng from an Eastern European perspective where the system constrains you very much. You cant be obsessed here, no matter you want:)) Apart of this, there are lots of lazy people (much much more than the ‘obsessed ones) who cant wayt for more arguments to do nothing:)) Anyways, the discussion is nice and due to the complexity of the topic could last kind of forever. I agree with all of you, dotn misunderstand me. Greetings!!!

    • All these because of obsession or because of other deeper reasons ie insecurity of the system, external forcing to work without sense etc? One should produce more and more to enter in the system and have a stable job. Unfortunately there are not enough job possibilities for every brilliant academic and what is even sader, we typically depend on one thing (money income) for living. This dependency and the high vulnerability and hard accesibility of that resource even if the researcher works very hard, can make a person feel very frustrated. So there are two main axes: you work because you are ‘obsessed’ and your problem is just to stop yourself and to whish this enough, or you work very hard to have an income which is enough for building a (modest but secure) life while doing what you love to do.

  3. Pingback: Re-balancing … everything? | Ideas for Sustainability

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