Last week, for no particular reason, I shared a few thoughts about the nature of knowledge production in academe via Twitter. By “knowledge production,” I’m referring to the process by which experts, such as professors, create new knowledge through research. I lamented how a preoccupation with new and cutting-edge research makes it easy to overlook excellent, still relevant research from two decades (or more) ago. Our gravitation towards the novel and shiny coincides with an acceleration of knowledge production--a perceptible increase the speed at which research is created and the frequency at which new knowledge products are released. This blog post explores some reasons for the acceleration of knowledge production in academe, including the influence of the media.
Acceleration of Knowledge Production
If you’re familiar with academic culture, you’ve likely heard the phrase “publish or perish,” which describes the pressures that professors experience to publish their research in order to be rewarded and recognized, namely being granted tenure. These days, many professors tell you they experience pressures not just to publish, but to publish regularly. Most of the professors I know are working on multiple research projects simultaneously, and they have several manuscripts under review and/or in press. The goal it seems is to have a steady stream of research being published, and more is always better for career advancement. This strategy has, not coincidentally, emerged in a highly competitive academic labor market, which leaves many people believing the only protection against precarity is producing in excess.
The result of this mad dash to publish regularly is that many professors feel they don’t have enough hours in the day to complete their work. They finish one writing project just to start another, meet a deadline just as the next approaches. This cycle of trying to publish more and more--with no finish line--has obvious consequences for mental health and has contributed to a “slow professor” movement. Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeger wrote a book on the subject, which seeks to help professors slow down and “act with purpose, taking the time for deliberation, reflection, and dialogue, cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience” (p. 11). Sociologist Jana Bacevic has an excellent blog post on this in which she questions whether professors can truly read all of the knowledge being produced and argues that one means to resist neoliberalism in higher education is to simply publish less. I encourage you to read her post.
Reasons for the Acceleration
There are multiple reasons for the acceleration of knowledge production, and I’ll only briefly mention some of the more obvious reasons before focusing on some that are less obvious. Some of the more obvious reasons include heightened competition for jobs, sponsored/grant money, and various recognitions coveted by professors (e.g., keynote speaker, editorial board member). Institutions have contributed to this competition by reducing tenure-track positions, emphasizing publication counts and other quantitative measures of research productivity, and elevating research in tenure evaluations as part of strategies to accrue resources and prestige. And, let’s be honest, professors do a fair amount of self-harm by pushing themselves to publish more and more, seeking to be “known” and avoid slipping into perceived irrelevance.
There are a few other reasons, some of which I haven’t seen discussed much, which may contribute to the acceleration of knowledge production in certain fields. I have written elsewhere about the increasing use of quantitative research methods in my field, and I have a sense that this might be true of other fields. This trend could contribute to the acceleration of knowledge production among those who are particularly adept at mining datasets with statistical analysis programs. I’m not suggesting that quantitative research is fast, easy, or sloppy. Nevertheless, I think it is possible to go from research questions to complete manuscript at a faster speed using quantitative research methods compared to qualitative research methods, which may entail interviewing/transcribing, field work, and/or archival research. As more people have started using quantitative research, it’s possible research is happening faster and being released more regularly. I'm curious to hear from others if they think this is true.
Higher education has been under assault in the last few decades, which has resulted in a de-legitimization of professors and their contributions to knowledge production. This has created space for other knowledge producers to emerge. I can’t help but notice that many media companies seem to now be in the business of data analytics, producing stories with sleek infographics. Additionally, there is an abundance of non-profits, consultancies, and philanthropic organizations that produce their own analyses and reports. Professors are now attempting to disseminate their research in an extensive ecosystem of knowledge producers, and many of these non-academic producers have significantly more time and financial resources. Every time I log on to Twitter, I see a new report or story from a major newspaper, funder, or think-tank being announced. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (though I’ll reiterate my point above about how feasible it is to consume all of this information). However, I again ask if the development of this ecosystem is accelerating knowledge production. In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, there’s a breaking story every 30 minutes. We may have a similar phenomenon happening as professors hustle to produce research and keep up with other knowledge producers.
I’m troubled by the acceleration of knowledge production because I’m not yet convinced it is yielding enhanced outcomes. In fact, it is possible that there is significant wastage or inefficiency in how we’re pursuing publication right now. There may be redundancies of effort, inaccuracies in results, and hours of time spent reviewing work better spent reflecting on big questions. I’m also concerned that the normalization of the speed at which research is presently produced will make it increasingly difficult to undertake projects that require time. Does the nature of knowledge production today make it possible for someone to spend multiple years working on an important research question, even if the product is just one manuscript? Ultimately, I agree with Bacevic that we ought to step back and slow down. Give thought to the pressures pushing us to publish and deliberate on our own motivations. I’d like a little less culture of “breaking news” in research and a little more “taking a break.”