I was talking to a friend over the weekend about a recent course that she attended on developing strategic research skills. I was intrigued as to what she might have found interesting or now, as she is already an accomplished researcher and has published in good quality venues.
A lot of what had been discussed are ideas I have heard before, including good organisational skills, having a clear goal (easy to say but not so easy in practice) and setting yourself targets. There were probably two ideas that stuck out to me, and to my friend. The first was setting aside time each day to write. I had heard of this before – simple in concept, but apparently quite significant in outcome. The research that the course presenters referred to identified that researchers that did this produced an average of two more papers a year than those that did not. I like the idea of doing this, but I also think I would have trouble adopting this style of writing. Having a regular opportunity to write, building your writing skills, and slowly developing your argument may work for some of the papers that I am writing, and it was certainly the style of writing that I adopted during my thesis, and still do when I am working on a long-term project plan or something similar. But when I am working on a paper, I like to have dedicated time to throw myself into the research area, reading all of the papers, having them surrounding me in my office, and thinking of nothing else for days on end. This is the final part of the research process, of course – by that stage I have already ready the relevant papers; built my hypothesis, argument; conducted my experiments etc and now I am joining all of the different threads together in one place.
The second idea was also interesting, but perhaps because it was much more contentious to us than potentially useful. The idea presented was to use online literature review contractors to prepare a reading list and summary for your paper. This stopped me in my tracks.
I guess the first thing to think about is whether this is ethical research? Is it ok to contract someone to go and find all of the relevant papers for you, prepare a summary and send it back? Another way of looking at this might be if you asked one of your postdocs to do this as part of the preparation for a paper – that would be ok with me, but then I would follow that by giving them co-authorship of the paper. If you used an already published survey paper to guide your reading that would also be fine, but you should really cite that paper in your own.
So what about if you pay someone else to do this work with no acknowledgement or credit given to them? I don’t feel comfortable with that – it feels like misrepresentation.
Surprisingly to me though, this was not the first issue that entered my head. The first thought I had was “well, how could you write the rest of the paper after that?”. To me, the best part of writing a paper is the literature review – I love reading others’ work, identifying new abstractions, connections and developing my argument. I love reading papers that don’t even end up being immediately useful, because I often have ideas that I can use later, or I identify new connections that make my work more interesting. Apart from my librarian-like love of the written word, I can’t see how you can conduct your research in the appropriate depth if you don’t have that basis of wide reading beneath you. Not just those papers that are immediately useful, and will form your final literature review, but all of the other, more tangentially related work that helps form the world that surrounds your paper.
This felt like a very dangerous shortcut to me…