Righting research

Published On: December 30, 2020 08:40 AM NPT By: Shya

Drawing from writing support programs for scholars in South Asia, this essay offers some practical strategies for making a shift from teaching to training, knowing to doing, when it comes to support for research and publication.

I have been writing in this space about the need to localize research, to prioritize it as a university mission, and even to normalize it in society. So, I am excited to see the “zoom boom” of discussions and collaborations on research and publication, brought about by the pandemic. This trend continues to respond to the rapidly increasing demand for, and interest in, research and publication in the global south in the last decade. What is less heartening is that scholars continue to teach and learn “about” research and publication, rather than focus on the skills and rigor in the process and in the quality of the product. It feels like watching coaches play football, where players are learning it from the sidelines.

Research demands the development of skills far more than gaining of knowledge. Publication is a challenging process that needs assistance, especially if quality is to be maintained, along the way. As a graduate student, I used to find presentations on how to publish as intimidating as they were enlightening. The presenters, well published authors, shared personal experiences, gave practical tips, and even brought samples and process documents to the discussion. But while I learned a lot about how to do it, I couldn’t muster the courage to then meet the challenges on my own. Ironically, courses were better at helping students with the research process and skill-building, even though they didn’t involve publishing.

A decade later, I find myself on the other end of that dynamic. At my university here in New York, I assist graduate students from across the university to complete their dissertations and to work on other research and publication projects. I cannot possibly do justice to the needs of the number of students who come to me. But I also don’t try to address all their needs. Instead, I now realize that I can organize the game and throw the ball back in their courts. Using similar approaches, I have also been virtually guiding a few groups of scholars in Nepal and South Asia through their journeys of research and publication.

Drawing especially from writing support programs for scholars in South Asia, this essay offers some practical strategies for making the shift from teaching to training, knowing to doing, when it comes to support for research and publication. These strategies could help universities, support programs and groups, and individual mentors help emerging scholars play the game much better.

Strategies for motivation

Start by helping emerging scholars find or develop research problems that they feel strongly about. Support programs I’ve been involved in have always shown that scholars pursuing research for social impact are much more likely to commit and persist. Greater motivation, through a stronger sense of purpose, helps them produce much higher quality work much more quickly. Compared to the inspiration of producing scholarship that is abstract, isolated, basic, textual, or foreign, the engagement of emerging scholars in more concrete, applied, real-world, and local research has been far stronger. Looking back, I realize that I too lacked grit and commitment early on because I was more afraid of the demands than I had the clarity of, and commitment to, purpose.

Second, use community to enhance quality and commitment. Scholars who work in pairs and small groups have always been more motivated. Programs designed as such have countered the assumption that scholars are by default selfish and competitive. Mutual support, in fact, has boosted healthy competition, if any. In fact, each writing and research/publication collaboration in Nepal and South Asia has contributed to grassroots and multiplier effects. I now realize why, in my earlier career, publications done collaboratively were stronger and faster. 

To study the above effects of community-based support, a fellow organizer, Surendra Subedi, and I have conducted an action research. The study reveals what we theorize as “enrootment” (or, having roots in local society and community) as an explanation behind quality via purpose and motivation in scholarship. Due to deeper knowledge about the local context, better ability to analyze and theorize data, and greater confidence in arguments based on experience, scholars seem to write better when their publication is based on the society and profession that the research is (and researchers are) rooted in.

Third, help emerging scholars apply knowledge, especially beyond the “applied” sciences. As I realized while recently facilitating a workshop for English Studies students at the Open University, when humanities scholars go beyond the study of elements of literature, analysis of texts, and theoretical interpretation of issues in the abstract (or about foreign contexts), they are truly excited. They start finding ways to use theory and philosophy to make sense of political and cultural issues around them, or to help tackle social challenges more directly.

Strategies for accountability

Support programs must be designed to enforce accountability. So, fourth, reward completion of milestones. Participants of mutual support communities have done far better when participants have to submit sections or improvements to their drafts before they can receive the link to the next online workshop. And, somewhat surprisingly, they have liked being held accountable to timely completion and to quantity and quality of writing.

Fifth, the dependency we see in going to workshops to simply learn, as I did in graduate school, must be replaced with agency and drive. In our programs, we have replaced lectures with video-recorded conversations, curated resources, and private discussion boards (including on social media). Far more effective than lectures are activities where small groups come prepared to share research experience, or pairs come ready to exchange critique on drafts. Individuals are asked to seek personalized support from specialists in their own time. The mentors also reduce dependency by providing resources and assigning tasks. 

Accountability can also foster quality, originality, and integrity of research and scholarship. Thus, sixth, hold scholars responsible to maintain these standards. Do not do this, however, in superficial terms. For example, simply “checking” for plagiarism with machine tools is like a village council ensuring that no farmer is stealing cucumbers from others. That does little to promote the quality and value of the product—or for that matter—even detect the savvier cheaters. The focus of accountability must shift to commitment, be borne by motivation, and be based on value and purpose in broader society. Judge quality by social value so cheating won’t be rewarded.

Seventh, hold institutions themselves accountable. Conventionally, institutions reward quality measured by prestige, which in turn is measured by scarcity (such as rejection rates). In the global south, where this has created an alarming trend where mere number of citations is touted as a reflection of quality, it is almost too late to define quality in complex, overlapping, especially locally adapted terms. If this is not countered, scholars may not venture into areas of research that are critically important for their disciplines, for certain communities or cultures, or for the nation. Scholars advocating for minoritized or oppressed groups, taking more time to produce results, or needing funding that current sources are not eager to support may not be able to publish in international venues. So, universities cannot just relegate the work of recognizing, supporting, and rewarding such work to the “free market” of journal impact factor, or to the increasingly corporatized publication landscape. Accountability is a two-way street. 

From knowing it to doing it

In sum, the mission of increasing the quantity and quality of research and scholarship is not just individual but also, and more importantly, social. Especially developing countries cannot afford individual scholars producing and circulating knowledge for its own sake. Publication must be driven by the needs of life, society, and professions.

Mentors must shift their energies from the “kamaal” of inspiring lectures about publication to implementing practical programs that focus on the “maal,” or product. A lot of research and publication in South Asia is being done merely for meeting institutional demands of recruitment and promotion (and for bragging about it on social media). The tradition of focusing on teaching/learning “about” research seriously reinforces this status quo. Making publication its own goal, rather than done for a higher social purpose, is not challenging scholars to do it right.

The writing “workshops” that I attended as a student helped me learn a lot, but the standards seemed too high, the coverage too broad, the expectations too many. Today, the programs that have worked best are ones that replace mere learning with learning by doing, with collaboration, and with accountability mechanisms. When knowing is done by doing, the process and experience shapes knowledge and enhances skills. It produces far better publications, even by nervous novice scholars.

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