The illusion of doing a good job

By Joern Fischer

A little while ago, I published a bit of an outburst about academia’s obsession with quantity. Some people have interpreted this to be in favour of a lower output academia. However, that’s not quite what I meant: I’m not at all against productivity. Rather, what does concern me is the frantic, incoherent production of “stuff” at the expense of theoretical coherence, social relations and reflection.

It is possible to be productive and reflective – to a point. What troubles me is that most of us academics are evidently bad at judging when we take on too much. Hardly anyone will admit to being addicted to “quantity” at the expense of quality. Yet, it’s quite clear when taking a look around that there are many instances in which academic life is less pleasant than it ought to be, because someone, somewhere took on too much (and is now a nuisance to everyone else).

Since, collectively, as academics, we are apparently not very skilled at judging when we’re doing a good job, I thought I’d put up some indicators that we might treat as warning signals. If these things are going well, it means we’re probably working within our zone of meaningful productivity; if they are going badly, it might be a sign that we’re compromising the quality of our work. So, we might ask ourselves:

  • Are products of your work routinely well received by your colleagues?
  • Are the people you work with generally happy with your contributions?
  • Are you able to attend meetings you planned or do you frequently cancel them?
  • Do you generally respond to all emails within a few days?
  • Do you provide timely, quality input on papers you are a co-author on?
  • If someone asked your students to confidentially report on the quality of your supervision, would they praise you or criticize you?
  • Do your papers show consistent messages, or an evolution of your thinking – or are they mixed messages bouncing back and forth, depending on the paper?
  • Do you stop to talk to the people around you, or just rush past them?
  • Do you find time to read and think about what you read? (Or do you just read the titles of papers, their abstracts, or tweets about them?)

How we do with respect to these questions might be something we ask ourselves, or we might ask colleagues to tell us if we’re not doing a good job on these things. To me, quality is about focus, about knowing what’s important, and about delivering what we commit to – it’s about being meaningfully productive, not just busy.


9 thoughts on “The illusion of doing a good job

  1. A rather similar thought occurred to me as I prep for my return to academia. (Everything proceeds apace!) I don’t want another metric implying false precision, but it seems like some consideration–at least at a personal level–of the number of one’s papers that are never cited, or cited only a couple times. This is particularly poignant with respect to papers that may take quite a long time, getting through the hoops of peer review. Of *course*, there are many papers that may be immensely useful for policy-makers, practioners, or educational purposes, which may lead to few, if any, citations. So many low-citation-number papers doesn’t necessarily mean anything about the utility of one’s work. Further still, everyone needs lots of “shots” in order to produce anything exceptional.

    All that said, it still makes me sad to think of how many papers are out there that are hardly ever read, after requiring such time and effort on the part of the authors, editors, and reviewers. I don’t think, for example, being more stringent on “interest” or “novelty” is at all the way to go, and does more harm than good in my opinion. Rather, the pressures you have pointed to with regards to producing quantity rather than quality, and the focus academia puts on the event of *publishing*, followed by (various and usually flawed) metrics of impact, defined solely within academic confines for the most part (at least in the US), with an even lesser weight given to quality, importance, and impact as actually measured by engaging directly with the work (e.g., finding out what other scholars actually thought of the piece, whether various public audiences have found it or might find it useful, whether it contributes important or new ideas, analysis, or evidence, inquiring about its use for educational purposes, etc.) Altmetrics are starting to get at some of this… but I guess at bottom what I’m saying is the missing element seems to be institutions (universities) actually deigning to think about other ways to judge merit, and seeking to reward a combination of productivity and reflexion. Or, goodness, even supporting reflexion that maybe increases quality but does have some sacrifice in quantity.

    I like to think I’m contributing things that will not simply sit on a server indefinitely and never used. But in my previous experiences, that worry by itself is a bit down the list, and certainly, any kind of sacrifices or changes that might address it seems to be thought of only wistfully, with little action or imagination put towards changing things.

    • Hi Jahi — for better or worse, that’s why I actually kind of like the h-index… or rather, I like it better than various other indices. When you start out, it takes only “average” papers to increase your h-index. But as you become more established, to further increase your h-index, you have to produce things that people really do want to read and cite. Now, as long as you don’t sell your soul in the process (by publishing readily sell-able nonsense in a “top journal” for the sake of doing so), the general incentive is to try harder to reach out to a big audience as you advance in your career. I think that is a preferable goal to just doing more and more of the same. Hence, if there have to be indices, I think the h-index is not as bad as many others. (And I agree, we ought to avoid wasting time on things that nobody wants to read anyway!) — J.

  2. Dear Dr.Fischer, thanks for sharing your thoughts! The problem you discuss was and continues to be extremely important. However, to my point of view, the proposed list of questions serves more as indicators of good time management, rather than markers of a good job.

    • Thanks.I can see your point. I think we might argue that meeting the criteria I indicated is a minimum requirement for doing good work — if you don’t even manage those things, then even with the most brilliant thoughts, you’re not doing a good job by your colleagues. So, perhaps necessary but not sufficient requirements for doing a good job? — cheers — Joern

  3. Thanks Joern for this.
    Papers and projects should (I would say ‘must’, because it should be a ‘must’ here – as we are talking about social-ecological sustainability issues, so, lets say it: must!) be means for doing good job.

    Writing papers train your brain to think conceptually, and to reduce compelex systems related issues to simpler but comprehensive, socially relevant realities. We all need such training and for some of us, paper writing can be a tool for this. Especially because society pay us to do this! So, I would suggest that never feel ‘impostor’ because of too many papers – IF this papers makes you wiser. If you remain with all papers published, then probably it was not worth all the effort…

    Having projects, that is, money, is an extraordinary thing to act for a better world, when you can mobilize all the knowledge and wisdom (you gathered through papers!), and combine it with strong intuition for the benefit of those who need it. It is not about how many millions you have but how you contribute to make the world better with that money. The emphasis therefore remain on the world. Not on the money.

    If the multi million project is only and only to say to the world how much money you have, while the world around you is collapsing (so the goal of those millions…) then I ‘must’ say that those millions go in the hands of wrong people. I want to measure people`s values not based on how many papers they write, and not on how many millions they bring, but rather, based on how they move ahead the relevant knowledge with the papers, and how substantially they contribute to making the world better with that money.

    And here, all your points become relevant. Very relevant!

    Thanks a lot!

    From a person who was and continues to be very much inspired by your work! (Tibi)

  4. Really good post (and article, linked in the PDF). I’m not in academia, in the sense that I’m not a researcher. However, I can certainly see cross-over to other aspects of life, and if I do ever enter the realm of academia, which I would very much like to do, then your outlook is certainly something that I shall ensure remains in the forefront of my mind.

    Perhaps I’m over-thinking, but I really don’t think the internet has helped (despite all its positives). In an age where everyone can get everything immediately, satisfaction becomes a mere fleeting experience that goes as quickly as it arrives. In business we see the use of KPIs (key performance indicators) focussing quite a bit on quantity, as the means of determining how well a job is being done is by how much the employee is doing – even if what they are doing has little substance. It’s a lust of “more, more, more”, and I think it’s a broader societal problem that’s rubbing-off on academia. I wonder if it will get worse with time, or better – probably the former. Cynically, and slightly tongue-in-cheek, I wonder whether people are too busy writing papers to read your one page article!

    • Thanks for the comment! Incidentally, I also led a follow-up article entitled “An academia beyond quantity” — which, unfortunately, has been read much less widely. It was meant to go beyond a critique, and instead provide some tangible suggestions for ways forward. In case you’re interested, it’s here:

      Click to access 2012_academia_beyond_quantity.pdf

      Unfortunately, I agree with you that for the time being, this trend of focusing on “more” is not likely to end!

      • I read through that PDF article as well, and I continue to agree with what you have to say. Your remarks on how not having the change come from policy is well-received, for largely the reasons you cite in the text. It’s, personally, a lazy approach to problem solving, and can be interpreted by those trumpeting the argument as change not being wanted until “oh well if policy says we have to then I suppose we’d better find a new status quo as near to this existing one as we can…”.

        In an ideal setting, grants provided to support research is great. In fact, it’s wholly necessary, and is critical in a free market system. The problem comes when that same money becomes the goal, instead of the research. The measure of good work is, as you have so eloquently put it, not how much one churns out of the Journal Paper Maker 9001, but how challenging the paper is, how it inspires readers, and what impact it makes, overall, on the sector (and possibly – hopefully – beyond). When I flick through journals, I am sometimes a little overwhelmed at all of the information that’s lacking real ‘substance’, and when the same (largely) work is rephrased and found in multiple journals, it does make me raise an eyebrow. It’s as if notches on the desktop is the carrot, and (never quite) getting to the carrot requires lots of money.

        An issue, for me, is that for all those who really do value quality as the most important thing, there are those that perhaps masquerade their pursuit of quantity as a pursuit of quality (intentionally, or not – perhaps an element of ego / self-esteem is involved). For those not churning out lots of work, there is perhaps (I only speculate) a disadvantage, and to break out from that disadvantaged position there is a need to write more, publish more, etc. As with most problems, it’s systemic.

        Sorry for the long reply – you have got my brain thinking!

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