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It’s about quality, not quantity for academic research

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It’s about quality, not quantity for academic research

Diego Bermudez, Contributor

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During my undergraduate time at UTEP, I have been privileged enough to have worked with a remarkable team of student researchers and outstanding mentors. I am convinced, because of that privileged position, I was able to compare and contrast appropriate research practices from bad ones, as well as gauging the helpful professors from the ones that detach themselves from good teaching and mentorship practices.

By comparing my experiences with my colleagues and classmates, it is easy to believe there is something inherently disconcerting about the consequences in the ways that research can be treated in a university setting. You can probably relate to this: the unnerving feeling that comes from a really close deadline on an assignment you haven’t started.

Unfortunately, a similar hassled atmosphere surrounds many student researchers and professional scientists at universities across the United States. At the collegiate level “making it” in research typically means meeting a quota of research publications. Publications will reward the publisher and his or her university, with appetizingly large amounts of money. The pressure is exhausting.

Money is a strong incentive, and as such, engaging in the race for the coveted funding that can tempt researchers to take shortcuts to meet deadlines. Some of these shortcuts could be compared to borrowing your friend’s homework to ‘change it up a bit’ and make it pass as valid; other times the urgent atmosphere in research trickles down from the professors directly into the classroom, affecting members of the student population by way of poor instruction.

Generalizing would be unfair to those who manage their research work and classroom duties in an appropriate manner, but in my experience, there is room for improvement on the complicated dynamics that come with research practices in our institution, as well as in others.

Broadly speaking, two main concerns arise from the way the race for research funding is approached, and they both involve quality: the quality of research publications and the quality of instruction provided in the classrooms. Both research professors and research assistants constantly find themselves under pressure to deliver publication-worthy materials.

So much effort is being spent publicizing as many reports as possible in a condensed period of time for money, thus making it very easy to fall into the temptation of taking shortcuts like manipulating results to make the study statistically valid, or simply overlooking the quality of the output in favor of the amount.

Even more worrying, being caught up in the funding race can make researchers forget about the fundamental purpose of scientific investigation, which is to share with the world a dependable, voracious approach to finding the answer to questions of interest. Contributions to the scientific community are more valuable when they do exactly that: contribute.

Quality publications set the foundation for others to continue to improve on the good work and solve problems; no contributions are made when low-quality papers—that only seem to regurgitate others’ work—are sent out into the world only to make scientists jobs that much harder by forcing them to excavate from a mountain of waste to find valuable material to build from. It is a devaluation of the work of those who do it right. A consequence of forcing scientists and researchers to make their livelihoods depend on how much they produce at a fast rate.

Students also suffer the consequences of strained research practices. They can experience them directly as research assistants and as regular students. As an example, student research assistants can find themselves surrounded by a dangerous environment if their mentors are not holding themselves to the highest possible standards. It could be poor practice, it could be that they have demanding administrative positions, but professors who do not prioritize proper mentorship will, unfortunately, breed misguided scientists, thus exacerbating the problem. 

The issue begins with those professors who are not as invested in their teaching duties as much as their research; these professors get so caught up in meeting the research demand, that they neglect to put effort into planning the best possible environment for the next generation of professionals to learn.

Surely the individual teaching skill and attitude of a professor are major contributing factors for the classroom experience. Since attitude or willingness are not typically traits able to be manipulated in professors, as a student I am convinced more effort could be put into helping their teaching techniques and skills, something like a required series of pedagogical sessions to be able to bridge the communication gap between the master and the apprentices.

For students, there has to be a middle ground, a sweet spot where we are sufficiently challenged, while not having to be self-taught. After all, much is expected when education is valued at thousands of dollars per year.

Beyond reducing students woes to teaching techniques, the magnifying glass remains pointed at the underlying reason professors are distracted in the first place: nearly-impossible demands of the high volume of publication that deters from a greater potential in a culture of academic experience.

Diego Bermudez may be reached at theprospector1@gmail.com.

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It’s about quality, not quantity for academic research