Efficient scholarship

Popularity of FiSch blog posts plotted against their length

Popularity of FiSch blog posts plotted against their length… Are we obsessed with our economics?

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So far in our series, we’ve seen that good scholarship will make appropriate distinctions (avoiding category errors); it will be communicated with clarity; it will innovate and build on existing scholarship; and it will be done in community, in critical solidarity with fellow researchers. But another way in which we can describe scholarship is using the language of economics. What would it mean for a piece of research to be virtuous, in economic terms?

Andrew Basden describes the economic aspect of reality in terms of ‘managing limited resources frugally’. This will be a familiar notion to anyone involved in academic research. How should funding be allocated to best advance research in my field? Which department should the university invest in? Which candidate will best advance our REF submission if we offer them the lectureship? How can I complete this piece of research in the shortest possible time, and making the best use of our equipment? Or even, more selfishly: how can I use up every last penny of my budget before the end of the financial period?

God has made the world in a multifaceted and varied way. So it is right that we try to learn to think about the world in a similarly multifaceted way, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do in this series. But there is such a thing as idolatry. Perhaps we could describe idolatry as follows: it is when you take one aspect or element of God’s good creation, and turn that into the ultimate centre of everything. It is, echoing the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:25, when you worship and serve the creature, rather than the Creator. So what does this have to do with frugality?

I wonder whether the economic aspect – getting good value for investment – has become an idol in our culture? If you found the introduction to this post amusing, it is probably because it is not a million miles from where we are. Our jargon and our methods of evaluation betray our obsession with efficiency.

What then might it look like to pursue economically good scholarship – not to waste resources – but to do so in a non-idolatrous way?

I suppose it would involve keeping the other aspects of good scholarship in mind. Two papers might be better than one, measured in a simplistic manner. But maybe one good paper would be better than two mediocre papers? After all, is it even possible to measure the quality of a paper in simple numerical terms? And what is ‘good’ scholarship? This piece of research might well advance my own career, or strengthen my department’s reputation, but does it provide a good return on our limited resources in the broadest possible view – does it benefit humanity as a whole, and does it help to build the Kingdom of God?

But I’m pushing dangerously close to 600 words, and I could find myself in the land of diminishing returns. So, in order not to waste any more of your time, I’ll sign off, and allow you to return to Facebook…

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