Sunday, 23 November 2014

Three Tales On Research Citation, Funding and Freedom

It is an ever growing development in the world of academic research, that researchers are being measured by various criteria of performance output. Two of these are citation – how much fellow researchers refer to your work, how much you have - as the saying goes - "academic impact", and ability to attract external funding. A third, that's been coming strong recently is the "societal relevance", which has prompted governments and purpose specific public as well as private financial backers of research to allocate money more and more within restricted programmatic schemes aimed to support research in (allegedly) pragmatically important areas. There is a lot of discussion of these developments among academics, and in the arts and humanities there is often a complaint that the systems installed are rigged at the outset to strongly bias in favour of biomedical and technological science, to some extent a bit of selected natural science. However, I'm not going to go down that route here. Neither will I question to what extent any of these parameters are indicators of research quality, mostly because I don't believe there is any such thing as a ready-made clear concept of research quality to use for such an assessment. My rather profane view is that different parties may be interested in backing, having or doing research for a number of very variable reasons, and any assessment of the outcome would be best assessed in light of whatever such reason is thought to motivate the endeavour.

Instead, I would like to tell three brief tales from my own research career, complicating things for anyone who think that the three parameters mentioned have some sort of joint relevance for how to assess research. This is not to say that there aren't other parameters one might want to use or that these three are "quality indicators", then, just that I will concentrate on these three, currently in strong vogue. My point with the tales is to show how easily scoring on the three parameters may come apart. More specifically, I will use them to illustrate how citation may come apart from both external funding, and dependence on directive research funding schemes.

Tale 1: The Ethics of Gene Technology and Sports
This is a field that I was more or less lured into by my friends and colleagues at the time, Torbjörn Tännsjö and Claudio Tamburrini. Claudio was pursuing an interest in the ethics and philosophy of sports, in particular the ethics of doping regulation, and him and Torbjörn has secured a book contract with Taylor & Francis to produce an edited collection on that topic, underscoring the impact on elite sports of technological development. I, at the time, had just started my tenure as senior lecturer in practical philosophy at the University of Gothenburg, had no research funding to speak about and was busy as hell with teaching many new courses, as well as working on various research proposals to secure some funding. Then Torbjörn and Claudio asks me if I want to contribute a chapter on the possible application of gene technology for enhancing sports performance, using the background of my former research on biomedical applications of gene technology undertaken in my post doctoral work. Hungry for merits as I was, and also a bit intrigued by the topic,  I accepted, and then spent quite a bit of my private time researching and writing up the piece the following months – I had no special funding of any sort, and the little faculty funding within my appointment for research was already more than fully claimed by other work. The book, Values in Sport: Elitism, Nationalism, Gender Equality and the Scientific Manufacture of Winners came out in 2000, and can be downloaded in its entirety for free from this source, including my contribution: "Selected champions: making winners in the age of genetic technology"

Pretty quickly, my chapter attracted attention among other scholars in philosophy, ethics and sports studies, I was invited to conferences and workshops, and a few years later I was again invited to contribute to a follow up volume edited by the same people, eventually published in 2005, and available for free download from here, and featuring my chapter "Ethical aspects of controlling genetic doping":

Once again, I wrote this chapter without any purpose specific funding, although by this time, I had secured a few projects on partly related areas and also been allocated a slightly better slice of faculty funding. However, writing this contribution was a direct result of the former chapter and would have been impossible to undertake withoput the existence of that former investment of work.

Later, both chapters have been reprinted in state-of-the-art edited collection volumes for use in academic teaching, here and here, and the first one is now my second most cited piece of writing ever, using the Google Scholar Citation tool, having collected 44 citations so far, and continuing to cited up during this year. The follow up chapter is not as well cited, being less radical in its main thesis, but also that one continues to attract interest.

Tale 2: The Morality of Scientific Openness
This story takes us even further back in time, to the period of my post doc days, which I spent in the now defunct Centre for Research Ethics, at the time run by the Royal Society of Arts and Science in Gothenburg, funded by a research project on the ethics of prenatal and other genetic reproductive testing. During that time I and the year following receiving my PhD, I had been sketching a text book on the ethics of technology that eventually never saw the light of day. One chapter in that book had been planned to be about the ethics of openness, secrecy and sharing as well as withholding information in science and research. I happened to mention this to the director of the CRE and my senior colleague in the project, Stellan Welin, who asked me if I had thought about this as a possible venture for a more advanced text, mentioning the angle of patent regulation and a context of scientific history I had been unaware of. Excited, I made some preliminary probing and, based on that, we submitted an abstract to the Congress of Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science, which was accepted and eventually presented in the Florence edition of this major event in the philosophy of science in 1995. Having received encouraging response there, back home we decided to draft an article, at the same time discovering the rather new journal Science and Engineering Ethics, which seemed perfect for the piece we planned. Thus submitting there, the resulting article "The Morality of Scientific Openness" (free online postprint), was published the following year in the second volume of this journal.

This entire work was the result of spontaneous impulse, lust and the time used for it was not funded in any way, especially not by any purpose specific allocation of money, besides a little bit of extra support from the Wennergren Foundation to cover some of the expenses to attend the CLMPS congress. Less sensationalist and more dryly scholarly in its tone, the piece hasn't rocketed to the top as the first chapter of the previous tale, but it is among my better cited works, and also this one continues to attract interest all through up during this year.

Tale 3: The Philosophy of (Free) Improvisation
This story takes us even further back, to time of my PhD candidate days. having always had a side-life as an improvising musician, I was asked by my two good friends in that area of activity, Mats Gustafsson and Raymond Strid, to assist in the production of a special section on free improvised music of the Swedish periodical of contemporary (non-popular) music, Nutida Musik, among other things an essay of what is special about free improvisation. Doing this in parallel to finalising my doctoral thesis on the morality of abortion, in turn undertaken within a weak funding scheme, I used whatever sources I could find at the time, and wrote what turned out to be a seminal academic analytic piece on the concept of free improvisation, called (in Swedish), "Vad är fri improvisation?", published in 1992. A few years later, I was asked by Peter Stubley, who was then setting up the web resource "European Free Improvisation pages", whom I had some contact with through an emailing list for free improvisers in the 1990's, asked me if I could translate this text to English. I did so, and Peter published it on the EFI site, where it remains accessible for free. Another stretch of time later, this text was translated into Polish, and published in the Glissando magazine in 2005. All of this work was done completely outside any of the funding available to me during this time. As this work was from my standpoint not in any way central to my academic endeavours, but rather a spin-off of my musical interests, I paid scant attention to what then happened.

But, in fact, if the Swedish, English and Polish versions of this short essay are combined (1, 2, 3), it is in fact one of my decently cited works (total of 15 citations), having attracted scholarly attention from philosophy, and the general studies of music and arts, up to and including 2012, so far.


So, to round off, all of these three tales document how (relatively) well-cited (in my world) works of research appears without any sort of significant connection to pre-existing funding, even less funding for the specific purpose of the work in question. Rather, the three examples illustrate how cited research may appear despite the lack of funding, as well as despite of the presence of funding claiming a research time for more purpose specific undertakings. As I recall, the same pattern holds (without any claim to comparability in other respects) also to the story told by James Watson in The Double Helix about how the discovery of the DNA molecule came about.