-the world as I see it
Life in the academic world pivots around the word ‘paper’. Note that I am not talking about the stacks of papers containing equations, analysis results, good and/or bad (most often bad) heaped on my desk. Nor am I talking about the crumpled sheets filled with scribbles, scrawls and doodles strewn around my room, or the wadded and balled papers lying around the dustbin, the result of many futile attempts to get them in without lifting my behind from the chair, or the paper planes – the closest I have come to implementing the ‘let your ideas take wings’ concept with my research sheets. *Sigh*
Anyway, what I am talking about here is the term ‘research paper’. I can hear all my fellow-researchers groan inwardly and go ‘ Why did you have to bring that up here? I thought your blog was supposed to be for entertainment. So long Chrysl, thank you for reminding me of the tons of pending work that I have.’ No, don’t go, that wasn’t the purpose of this post. I just want to put forward my ideas on research papers and their context in current times.
What exactly is a research paper? According to the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue, “A research paper is the culmination and final product of an involved process of research, critical thinking, source evaluation, organization, and composition. The research paper serves not only to further the field in which it is written, but also to provide the student with an exceptional opportunity to increase her knowledge in that field.” If that was too long for you, you might prefer this definition by the Empire State College, New York – “A research paper analyzes a perspective or argues a point.”
In my opinion one should keep the following criteria in mind when attempting to write a paper:
– putting forward a new idea that has been well-substantiated by experiments or numerical analyses
– dealing with a previously unexplored concept in an area that has already been investigated
– creating a synopsis of existing literature based on extensive state of the art reviews.
Fulfill even one of the above, and your paper is good to go.
At least this was how it was meant to be when the concept of a research paper started out and ideally it should still be the same, but this hasn’t been the case. While earlier, there was an emphasis on quality, it has been shoved in the back seat and quantity has usurped its position. “Paper, paper – the more, the merrier” has become the mantra of most academicians worldwide. Ever since I was an undergraduate in college, like most other students, I have always wanted to have a paper published. It’s a herd mentality – your professors keep telling you to publish papers. You hear about how good it is for your resume and how it’s your ticket to get into a good graduate program. I told myself that I would try and publish my first paper based on the project work that I would carry out in the final year of my undergraduate program. It was a group project and all of us shared the same feeling until we heard the topic of our project, given to us by our Professor. It had no relevance to the real world; the topic required us to study a method which was used no more, because certain loopholes had been detected in it, ones that had been corrected by a new method. We were handed over a similar thesis that had been done 8(!!!!) years ago by our seniors who had worked under the same Professor, as a reference and learning resource. The thesis turned out to be a life saver as we just had to manipulate a few of the details and get the program running according to the conditions that were specified for our project. I found out later that an altered version served as the topic of one of the groups of a batch that had passed out 4 years ago. I called it ‘recycling ideas with a lifespan of 4 years’ and was told by a friend of mine that it was a good euphemism for the word ‘plagiarism’. Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Anyway, we immediately dismissed any idea of making a paper out of our work.
I didn’t manage to publish a paper until after my Master’s degree. I was pleased with how my thesis had gone as I had obtained good results for preliminary work in a new method on strengthening buildings. Then I got wind of an upcoming conference in a reputed University with a theme that my research work fit beautifully into. This was it; I was going to submit my first paper. After weeks of toiling over the paper and about a gazillion drafts later, the paper was ready for submission. A month later, I got a reply saying that the paper had been accepted for the conference. I was ecstatic and gave myself a pat on the back. I told whoever who cared to listen about my paper being published in the conference proceedings. Then came the needle out of nowhere that burst a hole in my bubble – “A conference paper? No biggie. Anyone can submit a paper to a conference and get it published” intoned my friend. Jealous much, I thought to myself but uttered a “Why would you say that?” aloud. It turns out that he was right; a lot of people submit half-baked ideas, papers based on used and abused concepts and just about anything to conferences, without caring two hoots. Of course, when you skim through the paper, it seems fine and you can even get hoodwinked into thinking that the paper is absolutely wonderful. But read it in-depth and you will find out the true value of it. So what is the use of holding conferences and spending a fortune on organizing one you may ask. Apparently conferences are only meant for meeting people working in the same field and they serve as a means to build a network, especially on a global scale. If you want your work to be taken seriously, you have to submit it to a journal, and mind you, it can’t just be any journal, it should be one that is recognized by the international scientific community and one that has been peer reviewed by a distinguished committee. Where does that leave people like you and me who actually have a common work standard for everything that we do and devote the same amount of time and energy to any research paper to be submitted, be it to a journal or a conference?
Some people like to make a paper out of anything and everything, whether it is extremely insignificant or a milestone in the field that they work in. What prompts this? It is the system. Professors tell their students that University rules make it mandatory for them to publish a certain number of papers, say ‘x’, in order to graduate. The Professors themselves are required to get somewhere around ‘x+5’ papers published every year. Everyone is in this mad rush to publish more and more papers. Nobody wants to work on long-term projects that are not likely to yield results in the near future, they want to do stuff which will bring immediate results, results that can be published. Very few people focus on how their research can contribute to the benefit of the world.
I guess this is the fault of our education system and the system is comprised of people like us. If we are the problem, we can also be the solution. It’s time we get back on track and focus on setting things right. Here are a few pointers that I think would be useful in this direction-