Wits University principal and vice-chancellor Adam Habib sits amongst students during the #FeesMustFall protest in 2016. File picture: Paballo Thekiso
Wits University principal and vice-chancellor Adam Habib sits amongst students during the #FeesMustFall protest in 2016. File picture: Paballo Thekiso

Academic collaboration is crucial

By OPINION Time of article published Mar 5, 2017

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While competition is important for advancing knowledge and civilisation, it is no longer sufficient in the 21st century, writes Jeffrey Sehume.

Rabid competition among universities

and academics is a by-product of the industrial revolution dating back to the 19th century. While competition is important for advancing knowledge and civilisation, it is no longer sufficient in the 21st century.

Fresh thinking about the refined roles and responsibilities of universities and academics is necessary if we are to overcome the shortcomings that come with old thinking focused mainly on hyper-specialisation, rankings and tenure. Such rethinking is especially pertinent in post-1994 South Africa.

The matter is brought home by the prevailing context of academic scholarship and publishing. Asit Biswas and Julian Kirchherr estimate that “1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually”. Of these articles, they point out, “an average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read completely by no more than 10 people”.

Does this not seem like a waste of resources and opportunities, from the state that grants subsidies for the published article, and for the researchers themselves, who spend on average 3 to 6 months working on an article, only to be read by so few?

Does this not suggest published academic products are an elitist exercise driven by individual and institutional egos? What happens to the normative ethic of producing work that would have a wider public impact?

One solution would be by encouraging universities, their departments and academics to move towards group collaboration instead of prioritising individual or institutional competition.

There is a reason why the hard sciences are making major advances in the constantly changing worlds of technology, medicine and engineering as compared to the soft sciences.

Hard sciences have cumulatively benefited society based on the teamwork involved in the discoveries of various vaccines, nanotechnology, software industries and outerspace explorations.

Meanwhile, individual academics in soft science disciplines are still quibbling without consensus over 2000-year-old questions about defining what is ‘truth’, ‘meaning’, ‘beauty’ and ‘essence’.

In societies where poverty, violence, unemployment and inequality are negligible, it may be morally accepted to indulge in exotic topics such as ‘multicultural uses of a toothpick’. But in South Africa, how would such topics contribute to the real-life interlinked crises we have to deal with? What utilitarian benefit can accrue from indulging in such topics when we have to overcome threats of terrorism, xenophobia, climate change and consumerism? Which practical value do introverted topics render to legitimately anxious students of the #FeesMustFall and #DecolonisationMovement?

These existential matters are flagged while mindful of a possible knee-jerk reaction about the value of producing knowledge for its own sake. The reaction from such academic or institutional libertarians would insist that topics on toothpicks are useful because universities are centred on principles of university autonomy and academic sovereignty.

While these arguments have merit, they ignore several structural issues. First, higher education resources have become scarce as supply can obviously no longer keep up with growing demands from students previously, and presently, excluded based on criteria of affordability and socialisation or upbringing.

Secondly, the fourth industrial revolution demands a new paradigm shift centred on transcending over-specialisation in one academic discipline. Every child has the untapped potential to become a Leonardo da Vinci or Shen Kuo, individuals who had unlimited talents which they realised because they were born in times before education was strictly organised according to academic disciplinary regiments.

Thirdly, to generate sustainable and inclusive solutions, the 21st century requires attitudes that are oriented towards integration of knowledge rather than desegregation, convergence of methods instead of divergence, bridges of globalisation instead of walls of nationalism as highlighted by Brexit and Trumpism. In a world as interdependent as ours, attempting to disentangle it using race, religion or class is an almost Sisyphean task.

It is not tenable arguing that the methods and paradigms used in the past do not require upgrading, rebooting or reconfiguration. Rather, the fundamentalist logic of René Descartes that says “I think, therefore I am” now cries out to be balanced with the counsel of Desmond Tutu, which says “I am human because I belong”.

It is not enough to say universities and academics have responded to demands of our present epoch by using multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches. While laudable in opening channels for new concepts, methods and information, these approaches are largely located within the higher education environments. The know-how and experiences of non-academics are disqualified on the grounds that they are not thoroughly thought through, or scientifically rigorous, and their results are not generalisable.

A more favourable approach, transdisciplinarity, is preferred since it is based on recognising the complexity of reality, involves the inputs of both academics and non-academics, plus it is solutions-oriented. Transdisciplinarity would be encouraged in universities and among academics since it admits that, since reality is multilayered, it is not feasible for a single academic discipline to know more than all disciplines, as Francois Taddei says.

Finally, why should collaboration be prioritised above competition in the unavoidable academic rat race? Biswas and Kirchherr say that, if the academics who produced those 1.5 million articles wish to attract wider audiences and engender research that has relevance and impact, they have to be mindful of the fact that policymakers and “practitioners very rarely read articles published in peer-reviewed journals. We know of no senior policymaker or senior business leader who ever read regularly any peer-reviewed papers in well-recognised journals like Nature, Science or Lancet”.

* Sehume is a researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent

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