The Time Value of Research

Why a lot of research is really a time sink

1/ This weekend I’ve been watching the Twitter hashtag #PublishingPaidMe in which writers reveal how much they have earned from publishing. Two decades ago I edited (!) the short story writer Nick Mamatas for the former Disinformation website, and read McKenzie Wark. Mamatas made about $3k-$10k per book whilst Wark got a $1-2k average advance with a peak of $10k for A Hacker Manifesto. I made about $20k in 1995-98 from my ‘successful’' freelance journalism career, and in 2003-04, I moved from telemarketing into university teaching, research, and then research administration. Two publishers I worked for who had great editorial teams went broke.

2/ When I moved into research administration I began to see how competitive grants subsidised the data collection and the write-up of research. This was often a cost structure shift from the university to the taxpayer with the top-end figure being about $1.5 million in grants for a multi-author book series. This was far more than the most lucrative contract I signed for a single article - a interview of author Douglas Rushkoff - that I used to payback a student loan. As Mamatas noted in his tweetstorm, freelance editing and journalism was a part-time job with part-time pay, but the cost structure of contemporary academia is far higher.

3/ In elite R1 institutions in the United States this research intensity leads to some excellent scholarship. I follow several university presses in my field of political science - Cambridge, Cornell, Princeton, and Stanford in particular - and the quality of their scholarship is very high. But what is not necessarily clear is the time commitment needed for such research - 1-2 years in some cases for a single journal article in a top academic journal, and 3-5 years for the cumulative research programs that lead to published academic monographs. This research may be high quality - but if the average academic published book sells 500 copies - is it also high impact?

4/ Early career researchers who I deal with often do not have an awareness of this time value of research. They are struggling to convert a PhD into a readable book manuscript; to develop a strategically coherent research program; and to navigate the Machiavellian complexities of universities, often without Professoriate mentors. Their high teaching loads are a feature not a bug of the university system - this frees up time and resources for the Professoriate to conduct their larger, high-profile research projects and to take sabbaticals for book projects. Such pedigree benefits are not available to freelance writers like Mamatas who have instead dealt with United States small presses.

5/ Recently, I’ve begun to re-engage with managerial economics: the microeconomics sub-field of decision-making in firms. Studying decision trees, utility curves, and willingness to pay calculations has reinforced a conclusion that Mamatas and I reached independently in our careers: part-time work for part-time pay means that a lot of publishing and research are in reality really vanity projects. These could be funded in the pre-2008 world of economic booms and heightened sentiment; in 2008-09 I began to see as a younger research administrator that universities were curtailing the support that they made available to Early Career Researchers for conference travel and for small projects.

6/ In the COVID-19 pandemic world this 2008 pattern is repeating itself: universities are re-evaluating their research projects and in some cases are cutting or redirecting funds. Facing a revenue fall the expenses to subsidise the research are no longer viable. This outcome splits researchers into two groups: solo researchers with vanity projects, and research Centre and Institute affiliated researchers who have to generate income in order to survive. The former group struggle along; the latter group pursue scalable contract research and tailor themselves to client and stakeholder needs.

7/ If you scale up managerial economics then you get the kind of creative finance thinking that underpins effective mergers and acquisition carve-outs and activist hedge fund managers. In university senior management this is usually a variant on private equity thinking such as restructures that are GE-like ‘rank and yank’ exercises. Early Career Researchers are often not privy to these discussions or aware of the performance management inputs that go into them - so they can come as a (nasty) surprise. The fallout from such ‘behind doors’ discussions are the kind of ‘spill and fill’ exercises that are underway at Deakin, La Trobe and other universities.

8/ The shock of these ‘spill and fill’ exercises is that (neoliberal) universities engage in a managerial process that stratifies academic research careers. Managerial economics tools like decision trees and utility curves can help to navigate this process and to understand in a game-theoretic way what others are likely to do. It also means understanding that most research is actually a time sink that may contribute to knowledge but that does not in itself generate income. In a time of economic boom such as pre-2008 such research can be funded. In the time of an economic crash (2007-08) or a pandemic-shaped recession (2020) such research becomes an expense to be cut from income statements.

9/ The #PublishingPaidMe Twitter hashtag shows that small press and university press books are at best part-time ways to earn part-time money. Most research projects don’t even get to this stage - being unfunded grant proposals, journal articles with double-digit views, or ideas that don’t go beyond initial collaborative discussions. All are time sinks. This becomes clearer if you use a decision tree to map out the risk-reward ratio and the opportunity costs involved. The offset to the time sink view is the non-monetary joy of releasing something into the world - and seeing what happens.

10/ There are several counter-examples to the time sink rule for research. A cumulative research track record can build the experience and learning curves to take on larger and more significant projects. A breakout hit can create an academic superstar - as in the film, music, and publishing industries. Contract research can be lucrative if you understand the intellectual property rights involved and can appeal to funders. Successful grants introduce an optionality into academic careers. All of these examples are more effective strategies rather than building an episodic publishing backlist in the hope of gaining tenure. All start with the discipline of understanding the time value of research.