Sunday, October 23, 2011

What are PhDs good for?

I wrote this piece for the Star Newspaper's BizWeek supplement on September 3. In a remote sort of way, it is related to horticulture and gardening, because my PhD thesis happened to be on the classification of a group of plants called Diospyros, which includes persimmon fruits, ebony timbers and various species now used in bonsai horticulture in Thailand. Since then, I have resisted all attempts to nail me down as a Diospyros expert. It is like Sean Connery refusing to play James Bond so that he could be accepted as a versatile performer. For me, to work for a PhD in order to be nailed down as a narrow expert would be a disaster.

I am now a budding newspaper columnist but since newspaper articles have the shortest life of any publication, I thought I would republish this piece as a blog, which seems to have a better life expectancy.

The piece reflects my role as consulting editor to a scientific journal. I have to tell scientists in Malaysian universities and institutions that they have to publish to stay relevant. They like to claim that they are too busy in 'teaching' or 'administration'.

What are PhDs good for?

Universities award bachelors and masters degrees in different areas of learning, but regardless of the starting point, the apex of academic training is the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. So when I am asked what my doctorate is in, I would say “philosophy”. This would be followed by an awkward silence before we change to a more comfortable topic of conversation.

It is awfully difficult to talk about philosophy, and the modern degree of PhD is not about classical philosophy. While watching an old movie The Wizard of Oz with my granddaughter, it dawned on me that The Wizard of Oz had the answer. In the movie, the Wizard reacts to the scarecrow’s desire for a brain by explaining that the brain is actually a very mediocre commodity—every living creature has one. What the scarecrow really needed, and which the Wizard grants, is the degree of ThD or Doctor of Thinkology. Voila! Thinkology—the art and science of thinking—that is surely what the PhD degree is all about.

Ordinary thinking is what every creature does, each in its own way. But the thinking that goes into becoming a Doctor of Philosophy is very different. What a PhD candidate does is to select a topic for research, and proceed to work on it in an organised and disciplined way. The end product will be a thesis, which would be a new book on the topic. Up to the level of Bachelors, or even Masters, one acquires knowledge from books written by other people, but in a PhD programme, the candidate writes a book for others to use. To emerge from a lifetime of reading books to writing one’s own book requires a metamorphosis, like a caterpillar changing into a butterfly, but it would be an intellectually traumatic experience. Many candidates burn out in the process.

The candidate cannot simply copy what is in other books. That would be plagiarism and a plagiarist faces total disgrace if found out. The PhD candidate has to become totally familiar with the present state of knowledge of the topic by immersing himself or herself in what has been published about it, but in a critical way—questioning previous interpretations and assumptions and re-evaluating the evidence. At the same time, the candidate looks for new evidence or generates new data by experiment. Finally the candidate has to write a book to make all previous books on the topic obsolete.

The topic of a PhD thesis is not as important as the critical thinking skill that is acquired. Its aim is to generate more knowledge about the topic. Whether this results in solving a problem is secondary. It is assumed that by generating more knowledge on a topic, other benefits will follow.

Now and then, an Einstein produces a thesis that revolutionises the state of knowledge of an entire topic, but in most cases, a successful thesis is merely the starting point of a career in disciplined thinking, provided that the new Doctor of Philosophy is employed in a university, a research organization or a think-tank, where he or she can continue to do disciplined thinking.

It is not necessary to have a PhD degree to be a disciplined thinker but for employment in an intellectual or academic position, the PhD has become the normal requirement. But how do we know if PhDs are doing what they are paid to do? The only way is to enforce a publication rule. Under this mechanism, people employed to think have to show proof by publishing their work as ‘papers’ in peer-reviewed journals. Peer-review means that the editor of the journal will send each submitted paper to at least two persons known to be knowledgeable in the topic, for review. The submitted paper is examined like a mini-thesis: it has to be original (not a rehash of previous work), and it must significantly contribute to new understanding of its topic. Only papers that pass peer review get published. A productive average rate of publication for a serious researcher is two papers a year.

Once a paper is published, the title of the paper and its contents, together with the names of the authors and their institutional affiliations (institute and country) are captured in global databases. The papers that attract attention would be referred to ‘in citation’ by other scientists, and all such citations are captured in global databases. This has made it possible to keep track of the number of times each paper is cited after its publication, to provide a measure of the impact that each and every paper makes on the global intellectual community.

By tracking the number of times an author is cited, one can get a measure of the impact that the author has made. Such information is used to analyse the performance of authors. It is often used in making decisions on appointments, salary increments, promotions and terminations.

Scholarly journals are themselves ranked every year by the frequency of citation of the papers they publish. The ranking of journals, usually announced in June, is anxiously awaited by editors to see how they have performed from year to year. Editors strive to improve their journal ratings by imposing higher standards on the papers they publish. It is the editors who enforce and manage the peer-review process.

The body of data on publications and citations, sometimes in combination with other indicators, is also used to rank universities, and such ranking has become an annual global affair.

In 2004, in an interesting and innovative use of publication databases, Sir David King, Chief Scientific Advisor to the British Government ranked countries according to their output of scientific papers. He found that 31 countries produced over 97% of the worlds’ output of scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals. These are the developed western countries, with USA in the lead. Of the non-western countries, Japan and Russia are prominent in the list. Of developing countries, China, Brazil and India moved into the top 31 recently. China is showing the fastest rate of growth in number of papers published, but in quality, as measured by citation rate, it is still far below USA. Nevertheless, the rise of China, Brazil and India confirms the close linkage between economic growth and scientific performance, first observed in the rise of Western Europe during the Industrial Revolution, followed by the rise of USA, Japan and Russia. The remaining 162 countries—including Malaysia—contributed a combined total of only 2.5% to the growth of scientific activity in the world.

Through the global tracking of publications, made possible by powerful computers, intellectual activity has become open, measurable, and thereby manageable. The main tool of management is the application of the rule “Publish or Perish”. An academic community that has never been subjected to this rule will strongly resist attempts to apply it. This is the challenge that Malaysian institutions face.


Autumn Belle said...

Congratulations on your appointment as newespaper columnist! It is a good idea to republish your articles here for readers who have missed it.

It is good that PhD holders are accountable for their knowledge and contribute back to society. I'm sure having a PhD is not just about intellectual status. Better to accept the challenge to be questioned and to become a learned teacher enlightening others who are less qualified rather than a 'hermit guru' hiding in the cave waiting to become a saint.

James LoveTree said...