The Coming of the Distracted Scholar?

By Filip Vostal

Several accounts – relying on different assumptions and often rigorous methodologies – recently put forth the claim that scientific outputs are growing exponentially. This tendency has been documented in economics, which generates a new journal article every 25 minutes. In the natural, medical and health sciences, global scientific output doubles every 9 years as Bornmann & Lutz note (similarly here). Books – the constitutive communication channel in the humanities – are going through a cognate motion. Unsurprising, as the entire production process can now be potentially outsourced and facilitated in 3-5 days, and certain academic publishers guarantee publication of a book in 12 weeks from the moment a manuscript is accepted.

One of the challenges associated with the exponential rise in scientific outputs is how scholars themselves process and manage (or are unable to do so) more and more publications in circulation. One oft-reported subjective ramification of this trend is attention decay and the increasing difficulty in keeping abreast of relevant literature. Moreover, such experience is often amplified by the general dynamization of scholarly life, increasing workload in teaching and admin, desperate search for work-life balance, and other ‘usual suspects’ that characterize ‘accelerating academia’; not to mention the attachment to digital devices and platforms and the precarious nature of the academic job market.

The following testimony of a senior sociologist from a Russell Group university is telling. When I asked him about his ability to keep up with the mounting scholarship, whether he was able to stay on the top of his field and by and large how he reads, this was the response:

All I read is abstracts or table of contents. To sit down and see what come out, new publications, something that is related to my field, that just never happens. The only time I read things are when I am writing a paper and I need bring in new things, and there the reading is done in a very strategic, incredibly fast and unsatisfying way. It is very rare that I sit down and spend 45 minutes with a journal article when I am taking notes and thinking about it. Sometimes there is something I spend time with, but very often I am just flying through, reading for certain insights or certain empirical observations. I don’t think I am misrepresenting these things but the kind of reading around the topics that I did for my PhD for instance … there is nothing of that kind now. There is just no time for that. I read loads but I read my students work, I do lots of reviewing for journals, I do lots of reviewing for [a funding agency]. I am reading things all the time and I am learning from those things to a certain extent but I am not reading things that are related to my field.

Such experiences are unobjectionable. Furthermore, they are apparently proliferating in academia and account for an overall trajectory that, in fact, confirms influential theses offered by theorists of social acceleration and lately by theorists of the Anthropocene. Academic research available, being conducted, funded, disseminated, distributed, sold (e.g. in the form of paid-for journal articles) is increasing incessantly.

Taken to the extreme – and with the figure of the distracted scholar in the centre of this bold extrapolation – one is tempted to infer that the increase in the quantity of scientific outputs means a decrease in their quality. In other words, the more ‘humming’ (we are often forced to produce due to the requirements of our superiors and/or research funders and/or research assessment systems’ inbuilt logic), the fewer breakthroughs and discoveries that would shatter and correct existing scientific paradigms and established findings, the fewer truly imaginative, innovative, impactful applications of social and economic relevance that could improve human well-being and democratic legitimacy (for related observation see this). The more we produce the more conservative we become.

The more conservative we are the more we produce. The academic rat-race (also here) then seems to be a conservative rather than progressive locomotion. Isn’t science then ‘frenetically standing still’, to borrow a phrase from the ‘endist’ Virilio?

Not quite so. How much do we actually know about the archetype of the scholar reporting chronic distraction and attention deficit? Is the above citation the rule or the exception? Intuitively, we do tend to think such experiences are all-pervasive, and slow initiatives in academia often ground their claims in such intuition. Isn’t it, however, a rather bold claim to say that scholars are mere passive victims of time-squeeze, subject to the tsunami of scholarship they cannot handle? Isn’t it daring to say that science is ‘frenetically standing still’ as a result of this and that all sorts of burning pressures in today’s academia diminish scientific creativity and invention?

My hunch is that scholars do have and develop all kinds of personal and collective strategies, which allow them a decent degree of orientation and concentration as well as a systematic commitment to their respective research projects and goals. Many current digital technologies and tools directly prod us into doing so: we use all sorts of alerting technologies, classifiers, filters.

We also develop various intersubjective disciplinary techniques of a psycho-phenomenological character. We are often passionate about our work. How much do we know about specific (tacit and discreet) patterns scholars use when they navigate themselves in their respective disciplines, what their publication, reading, writing strategies are, what their daily rituals and rhythms associated with research conduct are like? How much do we know about the nature and dynamics of collaborative research work (which is arguably typical for the natural sciences) that takes place in labs and research offices? How much do we know about the ‘anonymous’ breakthroughs and discoveries that often result from serendipity and long-term, perhaps routine (but often also risky), incremental research – including testing, experimenting, hypothesizing – and how they come into life?

It comes as somewhat natural to assume that in fields with high turnover in scholarly outputs like physics – with its complex structure with many sub-disciplines and particular research streams that brings together numerous and often distant paradigms – one could hardly be familiar with all current developments. Not only it is unfeasible, it also is undesirable. Even as physicists in various disciplinary specializations oscillating between basic and applied research report that highly specific sub-fields are evolving at an ever-faster pace, they are also, at the same time, capable of finding ways of dealing with the rising amount of scholarship and the implications such a trend entails.

One such way I would call ‘intuitive selectivity’. I think this is familiar and somewhat ordinary to many scholars regardless of their disciplines (even though admittedly some disciplines require more writing than others): they choose to read and work with new findings and theories published in journals or outlets they know, from authors they follow or are familiar with; they switch off their smartphones and computers, ‘do weekends’, rejuvenate through and in extra-academic activities.

No matter how much they might identify with the idea that their research field continuously accelerates – in the form of rising qualities of publications, conferences, demands, tasks and so on; no matter how much (and how many) scholars agree with the notion that ‘life is getting faster’, it is often the case that many have the capacity to craft time for research-related activities, in a very systematic and coordinated way, including ‘timeless time’ and creative leisure time for refining their thoughts and plans. However, what are the important attributes and variables affecting, perhaps co-shaping, the existence of such ‘non-distracted scholars’? Age, gender, family situation, academic status, psychological dispositions, disciplinary background?

Scholars regularly and logically use their temporal agency; they often skilfully manage their time. Yet it seems that it is easier and more common to imagine and nourish the archetype of a distracted time-poor scholar on the verge of psychological vertigo from the exponentially growing number of texts (to be written and read) and from the overall dynamic pace of academia, than to ask the question of how (successfully) scholars navigate themselves in the admittedly fast evolving academic and publishing environments, disciplines, and epistemic cultures.

Filip Vostal is a Sociologist in the Centre for Science, Technology and Society, Institute of Philosophy, Czech Academy of Sciences & CEFRES. He tweets at @filvos.

Originally posted 12th August 2016.

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