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.