What is research?

When Robin Williams won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting, he forget to thank his mother, who was sitting in the audience. When Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, she forget to thank the director. When Jim Parsons won an Emmy for his portrayal of Sheldon Cooper, he said he wanted to thank “my writers” before apologising for the proprietary tone and changing it to “the writers.” Who you thank and how you thank them is a serious issue in Hollywood. It’s also a big deal in academia.

As an academic I don’t get to wear a designer gown and traipse the red carpet, but I do get to thank the people who’ve made my work possible. This usually happens in the Acknowledgements section of my journal articles. As well as making personal thanks – often to supportive colleagues or enthusiastic participants – I’m also contractually obliged to use this section of my papers to acknowledge the financial and practical support provided by universities and funding bodies. And this is where it gets tricky.

Here’s why: I recently submitted revisions on a journal article. I secured the funding for the study, collected the data, and conducted the initial analysis while I was in Australia. I conducted the final analysis and wrote the paper while I was in the UK. When I added a statement of acknowledgement for the institute that supports my salary here in the UK, my Australian co-author baulked. According to her, they didn’t support the research and so don’t warrant acknowledgement.

Which leads me to the question… what is research? Where does it start and end? And what counts when it comes to support?

Research, like raising a child, takes a village. It’s the result of long and complex collaborations between researchers, funding bodies, universities, participants, students, and industry partners. It also wouldn’t happen without the cleaners, administrators, and maintenance staff who keep universities operational, and the friends, families, and yoga teachers who keep researchers operational. It starts with an idea, requires lots of reading, needs money, involves collecting and analysing data, must be published, and should always be shared with the community. These components are all equally important and if any one step in the process is missing or incomplete, the research is unlikely to make a meaningful contribution to the world.

As for the study in question, it was not until I moved to the UK that I had the time and space to finalise the analysis and write the paper. The institute that supports my salary here was vital for getting this piece of work published and will continue to play a role as I share the findings with the community. The institute that supported my salary in Australia was equally important, without them I could not have secured the funding for the study or collected and analysed the data. So surely both deserve a mention in the Acknowledgements section of the paper?

But academia, just like Hollywood, is also driven by money. Acknowledgements and affiliations on academic journal articles aren’t just a professional courtesy, they also determine how funds are distributed to, and within, universities. So if they want to keep doing research, academics also have to play the long game. Thinking beyond this piece of research to the next one and the one after that. Ever mindful of the people or places they might need to support it.

For my part, I will keep the Acknowledgements section of my paper as it is, recognising the professional support received in both countries. My mother, however, still doesn’t rate a mention. Here’s hoping she’s not in the audience.



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