Research directions and the question of straw
This month I found a paper that proposed the same little idea I nurtured for my undergrad senior thesis, but couldn’t quite get to work to my satisfaction.
This is not the first time this has happened to me. Usually, in these moments I feel relief, and maybe even a bit of pride that I am thinking the way established researchers in my field do. Often the paper gives me the crucial missing piece, and I learn and grow as a scientist. This time, however, I felt disappointed: shocked and embarrassed, as when a private moment is intruded upon. The difference was that this time the paper in question was published many months after I had been thinking about the idea, and reported no more results than I already had.
Should I have rushed to publish my idea when I had it, then? Or was I right to hold off if I felt the results could be more compelling? As I dwelled on these feelings, I found myself thinking of a moment near the end of Hamlet. By Act IV, Prince Fortinbras of Norway is marching his great army of twenty thousand men across Denmark to attack Poland. Along the way, they run into Prince Hamlet and his attendants. Hamlet, perhaps intrigued, perhaps weary, stops a Norwegian captain and asks him what part of Poland they intend to fight over. The captain explains that their destination is just “a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name.”
A little patch of ground — is that what we academics fight over, too? I think of the mounds of forgotten papers that we all have read from and contributed to: papers that prove marginally better bounds, papers that incrementally improve upon benchmarks, papers that fudge their p-values, papers that get rushed onto preprint servers in fields where the rate of progress can be measured in days or even hours.
At first, Hamlet is horrified by the captain’s words. “Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats / Will not debate the question of this straw,” he complains. But then there is a moment of doubt. The captain moves on, and Hamlet sends off his attendants for a moment of reflectance. It’s just him on the stage, now. He wonders then if he has it all wrong. Perhaps, he says,
Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake.
Hamlet looks at Fortinbras marching to Poland and sees his peer making his way through the world, scuffle after scuffle, paper after paper, talk after talk. Sure, you could say he’s picking worthless fights, “finding quarrel in a straw.” But then — all things considered, things seem to be going pretty well for him. Who cares if the little patch of ground in Poland has no profit in it but the name? Isn’t the name what matters, anyway, when honor — or, for us, academic reputation, publication output, citation count — is at stake?
But that’s exactly the trap; it echoes through the writing itself. See how the word “great” bounces around in Hamlet’s soliloquy, losing a little at each rattle — we start at “to be great” and end at the grammatically tortured “greatly.” Shakespeare reminds us that the promise of “greatness” is a distraction, hollow and illusory in the face of the burning tragedies of war.
Which is to say: at stake here is more than the (academic) honor up for grabs — at stake is the reputation and integrity of the (academic) field. When we get caught up in quarrels over straw, we lose sight of these greater stakes, and suffer as a community.