Research Masonry
© 9 May 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Is academic research like building a brick wall?


A masonry wall can be built by just about as many masons as you want. There is some dependence of order and some need for a plan, but the bulk of the bricklaying can be handled by anyone mixing mortar and laying bricks is just about any order. Still, you don’t want to let all the masons go at it in chaos or some will lay more mortar between bricks than others, leading to uneven walls that are ugly and possibly even unstable.

Perhaps academic research is like masonry. Perhaps the frontier of knowledge is like the top edge of a wall and each research result is like a brick or dollop of mortar, helping to keep the wall growing. The reason most papers appear to fizzle is that most bricks are just filler: mostly necessary, but not something to draw attention. Only mostly necessary because, realistically, you can remove some bricks from a wall and with the exceptions of arches and the like you can remove them pretty much arbitrarily, but you can’t remove too many. It may be that no one result is individually vital, but the results are necessary if the wall is to grow.

But if research is like masonry, shouldn’t there be some kind of coordination and planning? Shouldn’t the researchers in a field get together and divvy up the work in some sensible fashion? Shouldn’t we value the researchers that lay a solid foundation for others to build off of more than we value those who make the most flashy contributions themselves? Shouldn’t we fire those who refuse to tell us enough to build our work on theirs and hire some people to tweak and refine and make sure we are building straight and true?

What kind of wall would we get if we rewarded cool looking results and penalized people who were “‍scooped‍” by someone else putting a brick where they were working? What kind of research does competition bring?

Either masonry and academic research are not well compared, or the bulk of academia doesn’t know how to react to its own principle activity.

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