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Too much academic output is preferrable to not enough

By Gavin Brown - posted Thursday, 24 June 2004

Sometimes I write hard against a deadline. Probably about 25,000 of our students do the same. There is a curious phenomenon, which ultimately may boil down to diffidence, whereby even those of us who enjoy presenting articles, find that a threat concentrates the mind.

Needless to say, many famous authors have described their habits but I have never met anyone to match Anthony Trollope.  He trained himself to produce a fixed quota of words per hour and did this sedulously each morning before setting off for his day job in the Post Office. This behaviour has something in common with a modern addict of television soaps who might watch a favourite show before leaving for a humdrum workplace. Trollope explained that he “lived’” with his imaginary characters and chronicled their doings almost as a diarist.

One trusts that no one employed by a modern university has this kind of motivation, inasmuch as the overall learning environment and the encouragement to collegial disputation combine to make us all rush to work to find stimulation there. Nevertheless one recalls the librarian from Hull whose poetry may provide a counter-example.


There is another phenomenon that can be observed among academics. At its cruellest one may diagnose a form of self-delusion. “My critical faculties are so sharply honed that I will not produce rubbish like my colleagues”. This is the credo of those who develop a reputation for fine scholarship by putting others down and never putting original work forward.
One may take an alternative and somewhat kinder view that honest perfectionism is the inhibitor. The mercenary journalist who advised budding writers that the greatest aid to achievement is sealing wax (to glue one’s trousers to a chair beside a writing desk) would have been marked down as an empty cynic by any quality audit.

It turns out, however, that most academics are remarkably unproductive. Even when quite a gentle definition of research activeness is provided and adapted, of course, to match the culture of individual disciplines, the result is rather disappointing.
Even in the ‘best’ universities, as measured by publications, research grants, Ph.D. students supervised, an impressive aggregate performance depends essentially on the efforts of prolific individuals. It is actually difficult to find a criterion for “research-active” that allows a majority of staff to qualify.

These are provocative and dangerous words that could encourage the philistines without the gate. I certainly believe that a large majority works diligently and hard but we do need to be clear-eyed about what constitutes a research-intensive university. We should incorporate in any discussion of work-load the notion of work-achievement and we should encourage everyone to conquer writer’s block.

On my reading of the evidence, there is more danger of tolerating a culture in which good papers do not get written than there is in forcing busy work that gluts journals with dross.

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This article was first published in The University of Sydney News on 4 June 2004.

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About the Author

Professor Gavin Brown, a mathematician, is Vice- Chancellor and Principal of the University of Sydney.

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