Good Work in Academia: A Dutch Perspective
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 second of two blogs, Wout Scholten discusses some of the findings from a research project investigating how professionals achieve Good Work in academia.
By Wout Scholten MSc., Rathenau Institute
What does Good Work in academia mean according to academics themselves? What threats are academics facing? Following my previous blog post about our research in the Netherlands, I present here three principal ways in which academics conceive of Good Work and its obstacles, each with interesting implications.
The ‘Good’ Ecosystem
Our research participants repeatedly told us that Good Work is not only achieved by good individuals; a good ecosystem made up of many individuals working toward “good” ends is crucial. Good Work is most often seen in terms of good teams, good groups, or, in the ideal, good ecosystems (respondents were reluctant to attribute Good Work solely to individuals). With the synergy of an entire environment that encourages Good Work, academics feel they are able to achieve more together than as individuals. In terms of the Good Work’s framework, various constituents or stakeholders should be well-aligned with one another’s goals.
However, various forces currently hinder the development of a good ecosystem. First, the high demand for new talent means that only multitalented academics who are skilled at project fundraising and publication of many articles can feel secure in their job prospects. In fact, because of the harsh competition inherent in academia at present, only about 30% of Dutch doctoral students will pursue an academic profession; many talented people are driven to work elsewhere. Additionally, assessment of quality has become more and more a matter of individual evaluation despite the significance of collaborative work. As one professor put it, “There is a typical kind of academic that survives in the current culture, and that is not the kind that is concerned with the common interest.”
These pressures result in the hiring of individually ‘excellent’ academics, but the development of a good and diverse overarching ecosystem with synergistic abilities among members is undermined.
Creativity & replicability
In our discussion two qualities emerged as inseparable: creativity and replicability (replicability in this sense means that the research is transparent and the results can be reproduced). Creativity and replicability mutually strengthen each other and, when in balance, allow for Good Work that is both innovative and clear.
Yet academics have observed trends that threaten that balance. Creativity is crucial for scientific progress but seems to be over-valued in the current academic milieu. The opposite holds with respect to replicability. It is essential for researchers to complete work with transparency in order for others to be able to replicate findings, but this value is under-appreciated in the current system. In several disciplines we studied (pharmacy, immunology, social psychology, and economics), the under-appreciation for replicability resulted in a high number of studies that could not be recreated. This is a severe threat to Good Work in the eyes of our participants: “If one cannot replicate a study, science is undermined. When I say to my colleagues, ‘Let’s first try to copy this experiment and see if we find the same results,’ they think I am crazy because we shouldn’t waste our time on an experiment that is already published at the expense of immediate progress.”
Beyond disciplinary demarcations
In order to achieve breakthroughs in research and provide the best education possible for their students, academics must have deep disciplinary knowledge but also possess a broad knowledge that reaches beyond disciplinary lines. Academic professionals who have mastered their own discipline but have wider knowledge of other areas benefit from the ability to connect different topics. Academics need time, space, and autonomy to realize this goal.
However, this pursuit is threatened by overspecialization and severe time pressures that are detrimental to Good Work. In our focus groups, respondents conveyed just how challenging it is to combine the expected breadth and depth required of them: “The managerial climate makes it increasingly difficult. We have very little time for keeping up to date with a broad body of knowledge. So I have to focus strongly on my own discipline to keep on publishing. The system forces me (to do that).”
The tendency towards overspecialization is fueled by a culture encouraging quick and frequent publication, with specialization as a way to reach this goal. Furthermore, participants noted a sharp increase in the number of administrative tasks and other educational duties required of them, consuming time that might otherwise be used to talk with colleagues about ongoing work in other disciplines and with respect to other topics.
In the last few years, we have observed a growing resentment among workers in research and higher education; they lament the greater numbers of imposed rules, stricter limitations on professional autonomy, and inappropriate standards with respect to the sheer quantity and superficial flashiness of academic work. The findings from our focus groups go beyond detailing these worries and directly link these factors to notions of how Good Work is being endangered.
We hope that academia and the broader public take note of what our respondents have said about how structural and cultural changes in the field of research and higher education have been detrimental to their ability to do Good Work. Through our research, policy makers, university leaders, and administrators should be alerted to prevailing attitudes and the effects of current policies. Academics themselves can reflect on the observations, pondering how to shape the system in such a way that Good Work can be pursued and fortified in the future.