Scholarship versus research

One of the things about academia that most surprised and disappointed me was the low regard for scholarship. Exploration is tolerated as long as it results in a profusion of journal articles, and of course grant money, but is otherwise frowned upon. For example, I know someone who ruined his academic career by writing a massive scholarly book rather than cranking out papers.

I recently ran across an essay [1] in which C. S. Lewis expressed similar concerns sixty years ago, referring to “the incubus of Research.” In the essay he describes a young academic in the humanities who

… far from being able or anxious … to add to the sum of human knowledge, wants to acquire a good deal more of the knowledge we already have. He has lately begun to discover how many things he needs to know in order to follow up his budding interests … To head him off from these studies, to pinfold him in some small inquiry whose chief claim is that no one has made it before is cruel and frustrating. It wastes such years as he will never have again …

My favorite part of the quote is describing research as “some small inquiry whose chief claim is that no one has made it before.” As Lewis said elsewhere, striving for originality can thwart originality.

[1] “Interim Report.” First published in The Cambridge Review in 1956 and reprinted as chapter 17 of Present Concerns.

3 thoughts on “Scholarship versus research

  1. Would it be useful to consider research as the process and scholarship as a reward? Research done with adequate rigor and compliance to the process may lead to the enjoyment of scholarship. An undirected study then may not have the same potential rewards as a research-directed study.

    Just a thought as I read your article and experience the demands of formal research myself. My dissertation chair suggested I view the process in that light, at least.


  2. I doubt the dearth of scholarship is uniformly felt across disciplines. It is useful and instructive to dive into papers’ bibliographies, and even follow the chain of succession of ideas. True, many fields done appreciate some deep things which were done long ago. Sometimes new achievements are rediscoveries of previous work, whether Professor Brad Efron’s initial work on the bootstrap, which I believe he wrote was not really new, or Hasting’s improvements on Markov Chain Monte Carlo. (Indeed, it’s hard to understand how or why no one suggested the improvement which Hastings made before he did.) Scholarship can be poor even in textbooks. How long did it take for classical texts to catch up with Bayesian methods and stop misrepresenting Bayesians are subjectivists?

    Worse, some fields really don’t have scholarship. Internet measurement appears to prefer conference presentations and papers to publication, and their requirements for conferences are like those in other fields: Consistently less robust. A lot of the knowledge there is kept in people’s heads, and bunches of it is proprietary. I have heard biopharmaceuticals are like that, too, but I have no experience in that industry, so I do not know.

    Certainly scholarship is not appreciated in much of industry. My most frequent intervention comes when someone tries to do or justify a result using applications of CLT learnt from a Stats 101 course, without any consideration for anything else, including replicability of the sample, and sometimes ignoring uncertainty (like covariation) altogether.

    I don’t know: Maybe you are correct and it was never as good as it should have been, but I was taught that if you wanted to work in an area, the first thing you owed yourself and the field was to do a really deep dive in prior work in and around the question of interest. How else are you to know where, really, the frontier is? Is it determined today by what problems are financially lucrative to solve?

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