After reading one of Martin’s earlier posts on turning a half-baked idea into a paper, it got me thinking about the writing project that I’m currently engaged in, which one might describe as turning a fully baked idea into a paper – but that I left in the oven for too long. This might not be the best metaphor – I don’t think the idea I express in the paper is burnt or has gotten worse over time (at least I hope not), but the paper is one that was nearly finished and that I started to refine into a publishable article nearly a year ago, but that I put down to work on other projects that had more pressing deadlines. It’s now at the point where I’m returning to the paper and finally bringing it to completion. This situation has certain disadvantages to it that I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss and caution against, and it also got me thinking about what it means to be ‘actively’ working on or researching a paper.
Obviously, this kind of situation (where one has to return to and finish an already started and possibly almost finished project) is less than ideal. In an ideal world one starts a paper and continues to work on it regularly and without significant interruption until it’s finished (for my purposes let’s say a ‘finished’ paper is one that is submitted for publication). I say without significant interruption because rarely is it the case that an academic is able or even wants to work on only one paper for a length of time until it’s finished, and not work on anything else. At the very least there will be other things one is working on – other research projects, grant proposals, administrative work, teaching, etc. – and that will necessarily interrupt progress on a project to some degree. The situation I have in mind, rather, is where working on a project gets interrupted to the extent that one has to put down or stop working on a project for some period of time such that returning to it is not an easy task. In this scenario, returning to the project requires re-familiarizing oneself with the project itself (what you are trying to argue in the paper) and perhaps also the secondary literature one is engaging with. Not only this, but depending on how long the project has been sitting, one might also need to make sure that no new research has been published in the meantime that one ought to consider. There are, therefore, significant disadvantages to ‘leaving a paper in the oven’ or, perhaps better, leaving it in a folder to collect (virtual) dust for too long. Given one shouldn’t forget about a paper for too long, and also that it is unrealistic that anyone is able to work on a single project from beginning to end in a short time frame, what sort of scenario should we aim for that both avoids the disadvantages mentioned as well as counts as ‘actively’ researching a paper? What does it mean to be ‘actively’ researching a paper anyways?
I won’t try to answer all of these questions here, and I’ll focus on the last one. To start, I should clarify that, although related, I’m not here interested in what it means to be an ‘active researcher’ for any institutional purposes. However, given institutions have definitions of this, it might be interesting to look at one. Let’s take the first option that google offered me, namely the definition adopted by Dundalk Institute of Technology in Ireland: they define a ‘Research Active’ individual as “someone who conducts research on an ongoing basis and ensures it is a significant focus of their academic activity”. This definition is shared by institutions like Macquarie University as well (see here). This basic definition is a good one to work with, and emphasizes what I think are the key factors when it comes to avoiding the disadvantages associated with leaving a paper in a drawer, a folder, or the oven for too long: when working on a paper we should aim to conduct research on an ongoing basis, and it should be a significant focus of ours.
The idea of working on a paper on an ongoing basis stresses that we never let a project sit or forget about it, that we’re thinking about it almost every day, and keeping up to date on the secondary literature. This ‘ongoing’ work should prevent one from having to re-familiarize oneself with one’s argument in the paper, and also with the intellectual conversation one is contributing to with the publication. I suppose these features are also stressed by the idea that working on such a project should be a ‘significant’ focus of ours, but this second feature might emphasize that the time and energy we devote to working on a project never falls below a certain threshold, i.e. that we are always giving the project an amount of attention needed to bring it to completion. I’m not sure what this threshold is, and it might even vary from individual to individual (we each have our limits when it comes to how much multi-tasking we’re capable of). But if we want to be actively researching something, we should never take on too much given our limits, and if we want to finish a project it should always be a significant or main focus on ours.
I’m sure much more can be said about what I’ve discussed here. To conclude, it’s worth highlighting that I’ve assumed that the end goal of working on a project is its eventual publication. This may not be one’s goal, but academics working at institutions will likely have this goal, and it is at least mine for the project I have in mind. It would be interesting to think about how things might change if our end goal is different, but I leave that for a different occasion.
 For another definition of ‘research active’ that is obviously tied to more institutional concerns, and thus that I’m not interested in here, the (now non-existent) Higher Education Funding Council for England defined someone as ‘research-active’ for contractual purposes as someone who is carrying out “research that would be appropriately assessed by the criteria used by the REF.” (see here)
P.S. Seeing as it’s my first post, let me take the opportunity to thank Martin for having me on the blog! I’m really looking forward to taking part.
2 thoughts on “What does it mean to be ‘actively’ researching a paper?”
Thanks for joining and for this post! I have to admit that this happens to me quite a lot: I have something alomst finished, then I have to put it aside, and all of a sudden many months have passed. The trouble is that the refamiliarisation always makes me think that I’ve now forgotten something really significant. On the other hand, this has an upside: coming back with limited time means, I have to be very pragmatic and won’t fuss about or try and be perfectionist.
All that said, I have a question. After a chat with a colleague last night, I thought that we often only count the actual writing process “(active) research”. But that seems to be a mistake: what you call familiarising and refamiliarising actually *is* research: it means reading stuff, taking suprising diversions (and those can start from doing something else), re-reading sources, and refining arguments. All this might leave no *visible* traces in the paper. Thus, viewed from the demand of productivity it is often seen as a waste of time. But it is research without which our paper would be different. – But who cares if many people count output rather than read papers… So my question is this: Aren’t we prone to fetishise writing and thus producing output rather than doing actual research? – I know this is put a bit polemically, but the meme is “you should be writing”, not “you should be doing research”.
Thanks so much Martin. It’s reassuring to hear that more established academics like yourself deal with the same issues. And I too share the feeling that I’ve somehow ‘lost the spark’ that I felt with a paper when I leave it for too long. I think that’s actually one of the main sources of disappointment/frustration when returning to it. As for your question: I absolutely agree! I certainly believe that researching/working on a paper is so much more than ‘just’ the act of writing it, and that the demand of productivity, as you put it, tends to encourage to think of anything that doesn’t have a quantifiable result as a waste. I think you’re right that we’re certainly prone to fetishize writing for this reason, and perhaps to even leave out the other important parts of research. Certainly lots to think about here, but the take home message, I think, is that we should never feel guilty or feel like we’re wasting time doing the other important parts of research that don’t involve the act of putting words on paper.
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