Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Why research?

I was reading, this morning, Barclay’s commentary on II Corinthians 9:1-5 where he is reflecting on the reasons why people give. It occurred to me that a similar reflection might apply to why people do research especially in an academic setting or at least why they do certain types of research. What do I mean?

Increasingly in an academic context, the pressure is on for a high quality publications record. In order to have such a record, there needs to be some backing research. Therefore there is a certain amount of compulsion to do research. If I don’t write x number of papers this year then I will lose my y research rating and I will …

From a personal perspective, I ask “why am I struggling with writing a PhD?” The answer is quite simple. I was employed as a university lecturer and if I wanted to continue as a university lecturer, I needed a PhD. Some would say “what about the prestige of being able to say you have a PhD?” Sorry but qualifications only have value to me if I can use them for something and by now in my life (mid 50s), I have found that I can learn most things that I need to in order to get a job done without the need for a qualification. The PhD would simply act as a certification that I could do research but I can do research without it and to some extent I was. I just wasn’t being as meticulous with gathering the data and never thought of writing it up. In fact, I wasn’t as rigorous about what constituted proof of my theories. Yes, there is value in having to publish the results of your research work.

The question is then why get involved in the research projects that I have. My choice of project and research technique is more to do with my personal interests and with what I needed to know in order to achieve in my work. Not surprisingly, my research revolves around the scholarship of teaching and with what it means to have learnt something. Even my definitions of “what it means to have learnt something” are influenced by my personal convictions.

This personal value of the research has also influenced my choice of research method. I couldn’t see the value of doing a survey. Past experience told me that they only confirmed or disconfirmed my suspicions. Also completing a surveys told me that often the questions didn’t ask me what I really wanted to say about the subject. They left things out that the researcher wasn’t interested in or maybe hadn’t considered as a possibility. Surveys aren’t of interest. I wanted to know what people were actually thinking and what they had really learnt. My data gathering had to gather much richer data than would be gathered form a survey or the administration of some test. The result is that I have conducted interviews. In another project, we are using multi-choice questions but we are actually finding that short answer questions are telling us more about the learner but that is different issue.

My research is about what I wanted to know and what I wanted to be achieving with my students. Yes, others are interested in that as well and it is good to share with others what I have learnt and to work with them to implement and test some of the findings.

Now as I write my thesis as a full time students, I am thinking whether I will ever get to apply these results or work with people that might want to. Fortunately, I am still involved in a research group (BRACELet) and this gives me an opportunity to talk with people who are still involved in teaching. I intend to remain involved as long as I can afford the time to participate and the group still wants me involved. Why? Well, the things that we are discovering about the learning of programming are proving of value and that interests me. As a result, the quality of the research is improving.

What I would like to contend is that when research is done simply to ensure that the publication count is maintained then there is no guarantee that the quality of that research is going to be there. Yes, there are review processes but even these are like a lottery but that is another story. The thing is that if I am under compulsion to publish then I will look for research projects that will deliver quick publications rather than results of value. This to me raises the question of whether we are the research measures put in place are meaningful measures. A measure causes certain types of behaviour. In this case, a compulsion to perform research in order to maintain a research outputs count. As long as the researcher can publish in appropriate books, journals, and conferences, the value of the research is meaningless. It makes me wonder how much research is performed that is really of little value other than to maintain the publication record. Is that a suitable research question for someone?

No comments: