Posted by: bluesyemre | August 10, 2018

Understanding #AcademicImpact: fear and failure, stealth and seeds

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Failure is an unavoidable element of any academic career. For all but a small number of ‘superstar über-scholars’ most of the research papers we submit will be rejected, our most innovative book proposals will be politely rebuffed, and our applications for grants, prizes and fellowships will fall foul of good fortune. There is, of course, a strong correlation between ambition and failure in the sense that the more innovative and risky you try to be, the bolder the claims you try to substantiate, and the ‘bigger’ the journal you try to publish in the higher your chances of rejection.

After two decades of learning to play the journal publishing game – and it is a game – I have seen how the inbuilt conservatism of peer review processes are almost guaranteed to suffocate any fresh thinking; intellectual ambition almost killed at birth and many of our best scholars are now based beyond academe. I remember once sitting on an interview panel for a professorial position and one candidate proudly announced that he had published over two hundred journal articles and ‘had never had an article rejected!’ [Note: Exclamation mark in the original. I remember it distinctly – exploding like a non-verbal crescendo at the end of the sentence, reverberating with a cave-like quality in the small interview room and then hanging in the air like a bad smell.] This immodest boast was clearly designed to curry favour in a REF-driven context, but to me it represented little more than an admission of intellectual timidity. ‘Maybe you should try a little harder?’ I mischievously suggested.

I recently found myself in a similarly perplexing professional predicament while lunching with a ridiculously ‘senior’ professor of political science. My painful sense of academic inadequacy may have led me to rather over-emphasise that I had been appointed as the Special Adviser of a Select Committee in the House of Lords. My pudding may well have been slightly over-egged but this could not explain the rather deflating response, ‘Why the hell would you want to waste your time with that!’ Professor X retorted [Note: not my lunch partner’s real name] ‘It’s like signing-up to failure…the Government’s never going to accept what the committee says.’ With this totally unexpected ‘Why would you bother?’ reaction ringing in my ears, I quickly shifted the focus of the conversation to far more weightier matters and the long-term implications of Prof. X’s recent journal article on the political-economy of fountain pen production in Ulan Bator (apparently a booming Mongolia industry).

This conversation came back to haunt me when the Government did, with all but a few very minor concessions, reject the committee’s report. To use the language of ‘rejection’ rather underplays the Government’s response. The Government did not want to play ball, it was not interested, it said ‘go away and stop bothering us’ – the steamroller was not in the mood to be heckled.

I had failed. I had wasted my time – lots of time (and the time of lots of people).

Nine months of frenzied research, over 250 submissions of evidence, 58 witnesses, two committee visits plus lots of other activity and the meticulous crafting of a final report had really failed to have much of an impact at all. Professor X was correct…. it really had been a waste of time.

Or had it?

Three words, one little question, three short answers.

https://blog.oup.com/2018/08/academic-impact-fear-failure-stealth-seeds/


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