When I started out as a researcher, as a young Ph.D. student, I thought research was about “having ideas”. Then, it occured to me that it was about “having ideas and ‘selling’ them” because “having ideas” is easy and too many people have too many ideas already. But marketing experts sell ideas all the time… surely, they don’t do “research”. Then, I changed my mind and decided research was about “taking ideas, validating them, putting them in practice, and building tools out of it” where “tools” is to be interpreted in a very wide sense. Turns out it is not a bad definition of what research is. But the part about “taking ideas and validating them” is a networking problem. Where do your ideas come from, how do you know how good they are? Ultimately, “validating” an idea means putting it in front of a community and getting the community to say “this is a good idea”. “Validating” is not the same as selling, though it might be hard to tell what a person is really trying to do.

But to be blunt, I don’t have yet a satisfying definition of what “research” is and I’m not looking very hard… though, networking is a necessary condition for sure. Scientists on desert islands without telecommunication can’t do research. That’s the part that I did not understand until a few years after my Ph.D. Well, maybe I’m hard on myself, maybe I understood it on the surface, but I didn’t internalized until much later.

Michael Nielsen pointed me to an interesting Web page very useful for Ph.D. students and novice researchers: Networking on the Network.

In Networking on the Network, Philip E. Agre accurately describes the world of research as a network. A network isn’t good or bad… so, some nodes will suck energy out of the network, and others will contribute much to it. The network is somewhat self-regulating, but it is possible, nevertheless, for bad leaders to emerge… He has this to say about the relationship between students and supervisor which I find rings very true:

It is good to be powerful, but only in the correct sense of the term. People with the right kind of power, in my view, do not need to manipulate or control others. To the contrary, they are (sic) know that they are well-served when others grow and find their own directions, so they happily support everyone in their growth. They don’t take responsibility for others’ growth, which is a different question. They speak to the healthy part of a person, and they are concerned to draw out and articulate the brilliant ideas and worthy vision that lie beneath the surface of whatever anyone is saying. For example, they don’t try to enroll students as acolytes in their empire-building strategies, but honestly ask what’s best for each student’s own development, confident that their knowledge, vision, and connections will have an important influence on the student’s development in any case.

As you can see, he talks a lot about “Empire building”. Indeed, because research is all about networking, to a large extend, one can build an empire out of thin air, with no substance.

It seems you can either build an empire for the purpose of building an empire, because that’s you definition of success, or else, you can aim to remain “free”. That’s a very powerful idea:

You build networks around the issues you care about, you grow and change through the relationships that result, you articulate the themes that are emerging in the community’s work, and through community-building and leadership you get the resources to do the things that you most care about doing. It’s true that this method will never give you arbitrary power. But the desire for arbitrary power is not freedom — it is a particularly abject form of slavery. If you can let go of preconceived plans then you are free: you can choose whom to associate with, and as you build your network you multiply the further directions that you can choose to go. You also multiply the unexpected opportunities that open up, the places you can turn for assistance with your projects, the flows of useful information that keep you in contact with reality, the surveillance of the horizon that keeps you from getting cornered by unanticipated developments, and the public persona that ensures that people keep coming to you with offers that you can take or leave. That is what freedom is, and it is yours if you will do the work.

I give Agre a lot of credit from bringing in the concept of “freedom” in research. University professors will often talk about “academic freedom”. I think that freedom in research is a stronger form of freedom. You can have “academic freedom” but be a slave to the “publish-or-perish” paradigm for the power it brings you. Or else, you can “do the work”, that is, do your research as a network node, and leverage the strength of the network to make the research you want to do anyhow, much better, much stronger.

2 Comments

  1. I think research is collecting, organizing and storing information.

    Comment by Claire — 14/7/2004 @ 8:50

  2. I agree with you that it is a valid definition. But it isn’t what I do for a living. What you describe is more like journalistic research, or library research… When I write “research”, I mean the “research *I* do”. Sorry to sound egocentric… but there is no other way to put it.

    Collecting and organizing information is part of what I do, and hopefully, part of my contribution to society, but the research I do involves creativity and it involves the network.

    Oh… where to start… I don’t even want to try to propose a definition of what research is… I’m not even sure it is possible.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 14/7/2004 @ 10:44

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