The insufficiency of academic sources for my research

I find that much of the literature on international relations is surprisingly stale and unhelpful, even now that I am doing my PhD research. As a casual reader interested in topics addressed in academic publications, I quickly learnt to avoid such books, dry, overtly theoretical and often uninformative (besides being expensive).

But now that I have turned back to such literature to inform my PhD research, I face a plethora of hastily written books that seem to serve purposes defined by their academic authors/publishers rather than those of potential readers. Many papers (generally the worst format seems to be collective publications, in which articles/papers of many different contributors are published) have been written without any original research, or in any case no field research. Such texts are often written by students or junior researchers who seem to seek to prove that they have assimilated their lessons and learnt the academic ropes, and that they now know how to publish a scientific article. They nourish an academic industry, as their publications may then again be used by a next generation of students, who will again rehash them without performing original research. Other papers, written by senior researchers, simply repeat their earlier published views, usually with some tweaking to closer fit the subject defined by the editor. This hasty tweaking (maybe done by a research assistant of the author) is sometimes painfully apparent.

80-90% of academic publishing on international relations is thus a self-referential and self-serving publishing exercise. Among the remaining 10-20% one finds both classics, books written from the centre of the International Relations discipline, and specialist books often published on the fringes of this industry. The former may not contain much original research, as they are written by people that spend their lives in academia, but they formulate novel thoughts, essential ideas and help to structure the entire discipline. These books provide the tools the researcher can use in his analysis. The second category of useful publications are usually written by people with an academic background that have immersed themselves in a given local situation, and are not fully part of the academic world. They are full of original research and often novel views. But these important sources can be very hard to find.

Such ‘field-based’ papers are more often published by research institutes or NGOs than by the major academic publishers. This slightly damages their credentials, as their publishers usually don’t engage in peer-review or other editorial practices which may confer credibility to a given work of research (especially for one who doesn’t understand the context). But on the other hand, it should also be noted that peer-reviewers by definition represent academic integrity, as they are selected to safeguard precisely that, so they are not neutral arbiters when confronted with original research that undermines previously accepted views, or is written by a person disconnected from the academic world.

Besides reminding me that I do not aspire to ever inhabit the centre of the academic world (although I do hope to achieve access to it), this filtering out of original research by the academic publishing world also leaves me wondering. I see it may serve to hide the lack of terrain knowledge among senior academics (ensconced in their proverbial ivory tower) who can then focus on their interpretation of facts collected by others. But besides unduly constraining what qualifies as academic research, I find that the process of peer review is also superfluous: I can judge from almost any text – even when I have very little prior knowledge of the context – whether it is based on a careful analysis of facts/a field reality, and thus credible or trustworthy (although I may disagree fundamentally with the views of the author), or whether it is a piece of rehashed bullshit, like Manzoni’s Artist Shit.

Indeed, the methodology, structure and most importantly the tone of the paper will quickly alert me to whether I am dealing with genuine research. I should explore what it is, exactly, that gives me such confidence in my judgment, and check how often I err and why.

From many points of view the academic world is not neutral to the mess the world is in now. It has acquired a monopoly on the production of knowledge, and managed to dismiss much of the knowledge produced outside its ambit as somehow impure. It can be said that there is one global academic scene, without challengers – no alternative schools of equivalent status can rival it. Its closeness to political and economic power is no secret to anyone. There are few voices in the academic world that have joined global protest movements, most academics preferring to maintain an ‘objective’ distance to taking such a clear position. This ‘objectivity’ is of course obliterated by the close collusion between the academic world and the centres of power, and in practice academics don’t hesitate to join existing political parties, occupying a fair number of seats in national parliament and in the steering organisms of parties.

It is also clear that university managers, ever more concerned about maintaining close ties to the world of business and politics (their sponsors, judges and clients) frown on such political mobilization, accepting it to a certain degree among students, but not desiring it among the faculty staff. Only staff that has acquired a strong support base among students (the other sponsors, judges and clients of academia) can allow itself to openly espouse radical political views.

One could thus say that the production of academic knowledge is monopolistic, self-serving, often deliberately removed from external reality, and political. However, there are still some gems to be found in the academic papers. It just takes an unreasonable amount of digging in unthought-of places to find them.

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