Opinion-Policy Nexus

As academics, we spend long hours coming up with research questions, developing theoretical frameworks, collecting and analyzing data, and then publishing our results in academic journals or books. The process can take a long time, depending on the project and choice of publication.  Once our results are published, however, it seems like they rarely have an effect. Very few people can access the journal articles unless they are a student or faculty member at university. There is so much research being pumped out these days that's it's hard to be noticed. The pressure to publish means faculty members have less time to read broadly and instead read strategically for their own research. And most articles rarely get cited.   You are considered fortunate if you can get 10 citations, not including self-citations!

Sometimes, I do wonder: what's the point? My first major research project starting during my MA studies at Calgary when Tom Flanagan pushed me to write a thesis on certificates of possesion, which is a type of property right found in the Indian Act.  That thesis turned into a broader research project on individual property rights on Canadian Indian reserves. Over a seven year period, I pumped out a bunch of single authored and co-authored articles on the topic, eventually culminating in a co-authored book published by McGill-Queen's University Press. That research project was the first comprehensive study of the individual property rights on Cdn Indian reserves.

At the conclusion of that project, I wondered: what was the point? We received a significant amount of criticism on blogs and in newspapers but also some support. The feds indicated they might move forward on our proposal but in the end, they didn't. And so that was the end of that eight years of work.

Over the last three or four years, however, there has been a rash of academic publications from lawyers, economists, geographers, and Indigenous studies scholars writing about this topic. The early work was normative and highly critical of our work. Some of those criticisms were silly while some, like Shiri Pasternak's article in Antipode, were first rate (as I read her article, I kept agreeing with her, thinking we really did miss out on some important points and issues).  Other work has been empirical and quantitative, building on our mostly conceptual and qualitative work to empirically test our claims. As time as passed, there have been more and more of these empirical papers, especially by economists.

And so, six years later, I am finally starting to see some dividends from that project.   It has been extremely fun and gratifying over the last several years to see others use our work, either normatively to criticize and debate the merits of private property, or empirically to set up a variety of quantitative analysis.  Even though I've moved on from that project, it has been exciting to see others take it up and push it further than what I am capable of pushing it.

There are strong pressures in the discipline to provide the final statement on a topic but I see research as a much more collaborative and organic process.  The emerging literature on Indigneous individual property rights in Canada is a good example, at least for me, of that process. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017 - 09:43