One of these, “When is Reading Research?“, really highlights some of the underlying issues.
When we talk about “doing research,” I think we conventionally mean reading in service of a particular research project, that is, reading in pursuit of a foreseen research product, a published essay or book. Does that mean that reading for which we cannot already identify such an outcome is not research, then? Certainly it’s reading for which we can get no particular institutional support. For instance, if I want to get a research grant, it does me no good to justify my budget on the grounds that I am gathering materials on subjects about which I would simply like to know more than I do, or in which I have a developing interest but, as yet, no idea what, if any, payoff there will be in terms of publications.
As I responded in the comments (edited for obvious typos):
I am also worried by the way that research that fits into the mandate of the federal granting agencies (like SSHRC) is privileged to the extent that it is coming to define what counts. I don’t think the intention ever was that those agencies would cover all of the research and scholarship being done in universities. The fact that a certain goal-oriented style is suitable for a SSHRC grant does not mean that is the only thing that counts as research.
The fact is that while your research may produce products — publications, lectures, advice to policy makers, training programs for practitioners, reading guides, etc — it is only once that research has advanced considerably that you can begin to identify what those products might be.
This focus on the products in the dominant discourse about research has effects that extend way beyond those Maitzen is most concerned about. In particular, it affects your ability to actually devote time to research.
Sooner or later you’ll need to do this kind of reading
The reading that doesn’t have an obvious goal is the work most likely to be treated as a hobby. More often than not it becomes the hobby you don’t ever get around to.
Of course you can be incredibly productive without too much new reading for a while. Most of what you read is complex and multi-layered. You can keep going back to it and finding new things. The theory that you read for your PhD will keep you going for a good long time.
For many people, it takes some kind of crisis to get them reading again. At some point you need to add fuel to your intellectual fire.
The problem with waiting for the crisis is that it’s going to create a dip in your productivity. This might be okay but if you are in the UK (the REF cycle is fixed and dips and troughs can wreak havoc with your record), or approaching an important milestone like confirmation of your appointment/tenure or a promotion, it can be rather disruptive.
Making reading a habit
Even without that kind of external pressure, the fact that your research habits have developed around things with reasonably immediate goals mean that you will feel weird if you just sit there and read for no apparent purpose other than to learn new things and contemplate what that might mean for future projects/products.
The kind of writing that you do in these early stages of research might also feel unproductive. Making notes. Freewriting about new ideas. Struggling to connect the new material to some of the ongoing themes of your research. Even trying to say something scholarly about a new area.
My recommendation is to try to integrate reading and that unproductive kind of writing into your normal research routine. This might be a second stage thing. You might need to work on getting into the habit of doing research regularly, even for 15 minutes a day.
Of course, expanding your sense of what counts as research might also help you make that time. Put it on your to-do list as a block of time (however small) and count it as an accomplishment if you spent that time doing some kind of research-related activity.
This post was edited July 14, 2015.