I finished another research proposal yesterday. Clicking the ‘submit’ button induces the same sense of irrevokability that used to accompany the posting of a bulky manilla envelope through the maw of a post box: anxiety that it might contain some terrible mistake combining acutely with an overwhelming urgency to get it over with. I can remember times in the past when the thought of leaving it till the next morning was so unbearable that I would go out out in a raincoat in the grey pre-dawn just to be shot of that bundled offering, that peculiar combination of boasting and supplication that a proposal embodies, which i have written about elsewhere as ‘begging and bragging‘. This time it was a more collegiate effort than it often is and someone else performed the fateful deed, so the moment of release was a little modified – a somewhat anticlimactic transmission of an email with a pdf attachment, though the moment of hitting ‘send’ still had its poignancy.
Nevertheless, it is an event to be marked and an excuse to give myself some time away from all the other pressing oughts.
And also a moment to reflect on this writing of proposals which has consumed so much of my time over the last four decades. And with this, to reflect on some of the contradictions in intellectual life which the writing of proposals brings to the surface, contradictions that seem to become much more acute with each passing year.
First there is the matter of the sheer volume of writing required. This latest effort was about 45,000 words, shorter than some. In this case not all written by me but nevertheless taking up time – to chase up the authors, edit etc. Multiply that by – say twice a year (I’ve sometimes done more – my record was 11 in one year – but I’m trying to be conservative here) and multiply that by thirty five (allowing for a few years when i was less productive, or the proposals were smaller) and that’s getting on for 3 million words. I’d rather not think how many books that could be! I suppose about a quarter of them turned into funded projects which provided me – rather unevenly – with a living all those years. I could only have written (or, to be fair to my collaborators, co-written) all those books if i had a private income of some sort (and, of course, strong motivation, which might not have been there if I’d been living the life of Riley at someone else’s expense). So it can’t really all be regarded as wasted effort. But it does sometimes feel like it.
A curious feature of research proposals is that they have no public visibility as anyone’s intellectual property. If the research is commissioned, they ‘belong’ to the client. If, like so many European proposals, they are put together by a team of collaborators from different countries, then they become the collective property of the team, regardless of how much, or little, effort any given member has put into the writing of them. If they proposal fails, large chunks of it are liable to be cut and pasted without acknowledgement into other proposals which may, or may not, involve the original authors of those pieces of text. If the proposal succeeds, then all members feel free to use is as they like. This should not matter in principle but can be annoying in practice. In one large European project I worked on a few years ago we developed some rules designed to help junior researchers gain some recognition for their work. The project involved carrying out a large number of case studies. According to these rules, anyone wanting to draw conclusions from the case studies was obliged to cite the original case study report written by the researcher who had done the interviews when referring to it, rather than any synthesised analysis on which their name might not appear. Fair enough, you might think. But in practice this failed to take account of the genealogy of the interpretative text. I had written quite a lot of the original research proposal, under some time pressure, and, when doing so, had lifted some text from other work of mine in progress (some of which formed hypotheses that were tested in the fieldwork). Parts of this text then got reused word for word (with no acknowledgement) by the case study authors and reappeared several times in various reports analysing the fieldwork results, so when I finally got round to publishing something based on the text I had drawn on for writing the proposal in the first place, i was condemned for having ripped off the work of these junior researchers and, apologetic and bad at standing my ground as I am, ended up littering my ‘new’ text with references to the work of others which had used my own earlier unacknowledged language, in a sort double expropriation.
A proposal is a sharp reminder that, as intellectual property lawyers constantly remind us, you cannot legally own an idea. A friend once told me an anecdote about a now-retired BBC producer who used to bring to brainstorming meetings a postbag containing letters that had come in from viewers with ideas for programmes. These would be emptied out on the table for the assembled professionals to pick through for inspiration with, of course, no reference to the innocent viewers who had submitted them. Things are not so different in the world of research evaluation. When doing evaluations for the European Commission I was once – disturbingly – advised ‘Never put in a proposal in the first call for a new Framework Programme. Just look out for good ideas you can use in the second call’. And I have certainly had the experience on more than one occasion of witnessing good proposals rejected only to see remarkably similar ones succeed a year or so down the line.
But this raises much more general moral questions of how ideas should be attributed. We are all, of course, immersed in other people’s ideas from childhood. It never occurs to anyone to acknowledge the understandings of the world derived from the explanations given by parents or teachers in answer to those early questions ‘how?’ or ‘why?’. This carries over into adulthood. The penny-dropping moment that occurs when a student suddenly ‘gets’ an idea when it is expounded by a gifted lecturer is experienced as part of his or her education, something to be absorbed from the surrounding culture as easily and naturally as a tune played on the radio or a joke heard in the pub or even a sermon. Few if any would dream of ‘citing’ it. The conscientious lecturer’s role, duty even, is to pass on understanding in such a way that the student internalises it and makes it his, or her, own. But this responsibility runs into headlong collision with the increasingly powerful imperative also placed on that lecturer, to publish and be cited,which implies becoming the visible public owner of a set of ideas that are privately owned and deserving of attribution. These ideas have to be hoarded, as private intellectual property, until the moment of publication, for fear that they will be stolen and published under someone else’s title. Academics must therefore, both share, and not share. They must also both collaborate and compete. And they must aim both for ‘excellence’ and ‘impact’. Of such contradictions are nervous breakdowns made (see this Guardian article for some scary evidence on mental illness in academia).
The process of assembling a research proposal embodies many of these contradictions, albeit often in ways that are unspoken. Take the matter of competition. A European proposal represents a collaboration between scholars in different European countries. Indeed the rationale for funding research rests in no small part on the principle that knowledge and experience will be transferred from one partner to another through the process of collaboration. So far so good, you might think. But no one country should dominate, so in practice you should not have more than one partner from the same country in the same proposal without a very strong rationale. So this puts people from the same country into direct competition with each other. And the more expertise on any given topic there is in any given country – the larger that country’s academic community – and the more pressure there is to secure external research funding in that country, the more intense that competition is. And there are many who could bear testimony to the internecine environment in some disciplines in, for instance, the UK and Germany, resulting from this. But of course there are also strong pressures to collaborate nationally for instrumental if no other reasons. Careers depend on peer review, on favourable evaluations from national funding sources, on friendly people to act as external examiners and sit on appointments committees. Who knows when you might need an ally? This academic terrain is a minefield whose safe negotiation requires a Stendhal or a James Cavell to do justice to its intricacy.
The citation becomes a sort of currency in this game. Although the algorithms for assessing citations are becoming ever more sophisticated, this is still primarly a quantitative matter. The more citations you have, the greater your standing. So in deciding to cite someone you are not just positioning yourself as someone who respects (or disagrees with) that person, you are also adding to their pile of points. Consciously, or perhaps not, academics form themselves into little gangs (often grouped round particular journals or conferences) within which there is a tacit agreement to cite each others’ work, but ignore that of others. Unsurprisingly this has a strongly gendered character, as Daniel Maliniak, Ryan M. Powers and Barbara F. Walter found in their study of the gender citation gap, with women much less likely to be cited than men. I have not studied this systematically but anecdotes suggest that it is evident even in the field of gender studies. Discussions I have had with women who know the field better than I do suggest that when ‘men’s studies’ first emerged as a distinctive field in the 1980s the first writers referred back to feminist authors of the 1970s but as soon as there was a second generation of publications, the authors chose only to cite the men from the first generation (the fathers, so to speak, rather than the grandmothers).
At its nastiest, selective citation can be a way of covering up plagiarism. This trick involves author A reading author B and citing all the people author B cites but not author B’s own work (except perhaps some trivial aspect of it which is rubbished). Author A can then claim ownership of all author B’s ideas without ever acknowledging them. And yes this does seem to be something that happens much more to women than to men. But generally speaking, I think it is done not from malice but in ignorance or from an unconfident need to gain approval by copying the people seen as successful. Up against a deadline, with huge pressure to publish on top of a heavy workload of teaching and marking and administration, the harassed academic skims through the literature that other people have already cited, taking this to be the ‘state of the art’. The article being written will, of course, have to go through anonymous peer review so uppermost in the author’s mind may be an anxiety that the reviewer – or members of that reviewer’s gang – may actually appear in this bibliography, or expect to do so, so nothing must be left out. You mustn’t, after all, appear ignorant of anything already cited in the field. Often there isn’t even time to read the articles in question and the citation is made on the basis of an abstract – but you omit it at your peril. The end result is clear. Each time a work is cited, its stature as an important text in the field is enhanced. Thus are some reputations built. But in the same process others are left invisible. Is this, maybe, another example of the way the gender division of labour manifests itself? Are the parts of being an academic that involve teaching and administration and proposal-writing – the intellectual equivalents of childcare and housework – regarded as less entitled to reward or recognition than those that are formally theorised and published in academic journals?
Twenty years ago, this citation-seeking culture, a culture in which intellectual activity is increasingly commodified, seemed peculiar to, or at least much stronger in, the English-speaking countries. It is now much more broadly pervasive, perhaps because the global academic world is expected to be English speaking; the values have been smuggled along with the language. So there is now a second question hovering behind every invitation to participate in a new research proposal. In addition to ‘how much money will we get out of it?’ is ‘how many articles will I get out of it?’. Sadly, in addition to increasing the tension between the ‘we’ and the ‘I’ – this pushes ever further into the background that old simple motivation for doing research: to find stuff out.
And this raises yet another tension: between the empirical and the theoretical. With ‘impact’ generally measured by the results of the former, and ‘excellence’ by the latter. But perhaps that should be the subject for another blog.
In the meanwhile, I should end by saying that there is silver lining in all this. When you find yourself working with people you can trust, and do share their knowledge freely and are serious about carrying out new and original research and care about what use is made of the results then this is something to be treasured and celebrated. As I do today. Thanks, colleagues!