The paucity of research on research:

Research is an interesting phenomenon in human evolution. I am not separating biological evolution from cultural evolution here, because it is essentially impossible to segregate the two. But there are multiple reasons to believe that research evolved with us. It is there in human nature right from our hunter gatherer life. Today, mainstream research is bound by a fairly rigid structure for hosting, funding and publishing research. This has no doubt boosted research output. But do we “understand” research? I have serious doubts.

Successful researchers do not necessarily “understand” research. Just as an experienced cricketer can take a fine catch with amazing skills, but he need not understand which rules of physics govern the trajectory of the ball and which motor neurons he needs to activate to instruct the right muscles to enable the dive and catch. Physics knows the forces acting on the ball fairly well, but our understanding of nerve muscle coordination is still quite primitive, and limping to progressing.

The analogy is quite good for research.  We often develop a fair amount of understanding of the subject of investigation like the physics of the forces acting on the ball, but have little understanding of the how the mind of an individual researcher works and how the community of researchers interact. Not knowing something is fair. But that is not how things are. The community of researchers pretends to be what it is not. Also the way science is published is not the way it is actually done. In a research lab, more often than not, things develop rather chaotically, new findings are often serendipitous, experimental work does not always progress in a logical sequence. Often one gets an interesting result first and then wonders how it came about. Still when a research paper is written, it is written as if everything was logical and sequential. Not only that, if a researcher does not pretend that everything was done in a logical sequence, he/she is unable to publish it.

This pretence (if it is better to avoid using the word hypocrisy) is so common that researchers themselves do not know at what stage they start the self-deception game. They make themselves believe that they are logical. But this is not how research actually progresses. Research progresses through complex behavioural, psychological and social interactions that have been little studied. Hardly any one seems to be interested in studying and documenting them. It is ironic that researchers themselves are not interested in research on research.

Formally there is a branch of science called meta-science or science of science. There is a Wikipedia page on Metascience and it cites some landmark papers in this area. There are a handful of good researchers in this field. Intermittently they have published good papers in journals like Nature – Science. Science organizations and leading journals have intermittently worried about how to improve doing science and publishing science. But reading through this literature my feel is that they are too superficial. They are not yet addressing the human behavioural principles that govern science. They haven’t yet asked how these principles evolved. They are still pretending to be very ‘logical’.

I was fortunate that I took a late and backdoor entry into science. My science training began after having completed my degrees in science. I had no aspirations of doing a PhD. I got into it only because I saw an opportunity to stay in a wildlife rich forest for a few years, with stipend! That was my motivation, not PhD. After PhD I did not do a post doc anytime. I liked teaching and was also lucky to get a teacher’s job quite quickly. I realized in my first few years of teaching that research was the best tool in science education and undergraduates the best persons to do research. That was my back door entry into the field of research. Not having followed the routine path of research career, I always looked at the research field as an outside observer mainly triggered by my own curiosity about how the field works, than by any aspiration of making a bright and successful research career. I discovered eventually that this field was a highly fascinating subject to study the principles of behaviour. The researcher community was more fascinating to observe and experiment on than the elephant social life, multispecies interactions or the social insect colonies that I was fascinated by.  So I have seen things that the most people within the community haven’t.

Of late I have started writing about it. One paper was published a couple of years ago and a second one I just communicated to a journals and also posted on preprint. This work is very preliminary, but the whole field itself is preliminary. I know that this manuscripts will face a very hard time getting published for reasons I have spelt out in the manuscript itself. But here is an interesting situation. If my manuscript gets rejected, it strengthens the hypothesis states in the paper. If it is accepted, it means it is agreeable. Does that make it right or wrong? You decide.

The link to the paper published in the Journal of genetics is Here, and the one to the latest manuscript on pre-print Here.

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