Doing Good Research on Good Research in Academics
The Good Project has partnered in The Netherlands with the Good Work Hub (Goed Werk Hub), an extension of the Professional Honor Foundation, which seeks to promote Good Work ideas and reflective practices in Dutch professional life. In the first of two blogs, Wout Scholten describes the motivations behind and challenges associated with a currently ongoing research project investigating how professionals achieve Good Work in academia, a topic that is explored through targeted focus groups with workers in higher education. This post discusses the project from the researcher’s perspective. A second forthcoming blog will present key findings uncovered from the project.
By Wout Scholten MSc., Junior researcher at Tilburg University and Rathenau Institute
For a long time in The Netherlands, the fields of research and higher education seemed to be perfectly functioning systems. In the last few years, this has changed due to a growing resentment for imposed rules, limitations on professional autonomy, and growing worries about the quality of academic work. Hence, we have embarked on a new research project on Good Work in The Netherlands asking two questions: How do academic professionals think about good work in their own discipline, and what are the main obstacles that academics encounter to achieving good work?
As researchers, we have also encountered our own reflective questions: what does it mean for us to do good work when carrying out this research, and what are the main challenges we face to living up to our own standards of good work? Thus far, we have encountered three challenges that, in our view, are specific to the fields of research and higher education: 1) a constantly changing social reality that affects participants; 2) the congested schedules of academic professionals; and 3) the critical attitude of the participants.
The field of research and higher education is in flux in The Netherlands. Expressions of discontent and protest against national policies, the current academic culture, and efficiency-oriented university management have increased tremendously in the last few years. This discontent has evolved into a fundamental and widespread cry from an increasingly large group of students and academics. Concepts like ‘the commodification of science’ and ‘publish or perish’ attitudes have recently been recognized nationally as important matters of debate. In February 2015, a group of student activists even occupied a building at the University of Amsterdam in protests that have lasted for over a month.
Policy makers have taken note of the unrest. Reactions from leadership include a revision of the Standard Evaluation Protocol that governs assessment of the research conducted at Dutch universities (productivity is no longer a separate evaluation criterion). The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) was also signed by the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, which lays out recommendations for improvement of “the ways in which the output of scientific research is evaluated.”
These calls for change and resultant actions have reached their climax in the middle of our research, and during conversations with participants, we notice them taking time to reflect on recent events. We hope to make sense of the fundamental flux in Dutch higher education helping others think about what it means to do good work.
The overactive academic
Via our focus groups, we also want to get a picture of the daily experiences of academic professionals. Unfortunately, we have noticed that it is very challenging to gather a group of senior academics from the same discipline on the same day around the same table. Despite recognition of the importance of our study, the congested agendas of the senior academic professionals prove to be a large hurdle to overcome. Most academics have so many competing responsibilities that they cannot substantially contribute to something they recognize as significant.
A typical decline to our invitation is a response such as, “I think this is an extraordinarily good initiative because the academic notion of good work is increasingly measured by management by successes in the struggle for funding, which eventually leads to a decline in good work because of high pressure. However, because of timing, I won’t be able to attend a focus group.”
A real challenge is therefore how we can involve academics in our research in a substantial way in light of time constrictions. This also means that there is a possible bias in the participants that eventually attend a focus meeting: participants are either so concerned about the quality of their work that they made an effort to contribute to our research, or they simply have enough time to participate. We believe that these two potential biases will cancel each other out.
Constant peer review
Academic professionals are used to judging the work of others, and, as one would expect in an academic environment, our focus group participants have been critical towards our study and our methods.
The criticism we encounter from participants is met with mixed emotions. On the one hand, feedback from participants amounts to a continuous peer review of our research, which has improved our methods. It has been inspiring to see the permanence of academic willfulness and the continual striving for good work. For example, during one session with a group of philosophers, the first 30 minutes of the focus session were spent on an analysis of our methods. This resulted in a rich discussion about what counts as good work in the discipline of philosophy and how one should approach the topic. On the other hand, the moderator of the focus group discussions has generally had a difficult time staying on track, even though our protocol is already loosely formulated. We felt we encountered another serious challenge to studying senior academic professionals: how do we overcome participants’ critical attitudes toward procedures and methods and facilitate an in-depth discussion on good work in academia?
Working toward good conclusions
Our research is still in progress. We continue to try to show participants that reflecting on good work is important, especially in the changing landscape of higher education, and that we as researchers also reflect on good work. We want participants to feel that the focus groups are valuable and that they can tell their story, and we hope that our data will give us a better understanding of the three challenges we have mentioned.
Please look forward to a forthcoming contribution to the Good Blog in which we share the outcomes of our research and elaborate on the notion of good work and the main obstacles to its achievement.