Wiseguys of Academia

An interesting discussion on academic life leads me to arrive at some sort of conclusion… is being academia like being in the mafia?

Beginning at the bottom we are the undergrads. A bunch of thugs pushing theories like blunt tools. Unsure how they should be used, unsure what they mean but we slowly reach the conclusion: For some this brush with the system is enough – they are scared straight and go on to normal fruitful lives. For the others we begin our slow climb upwards, which begins with the recognition of a desire. We simulate theory, assimilate method but in reality still basically use these a blunt instruments in our own work. We are the wannabes.

We graduate to our master’s thesis. We struggle to be noticed by the Phd students, Phd’s and many levels of professors. We are discerning a structure, its still a mix of awe and mystery but we recognize there are a path and a hierarchy. There is less pointless use of violence but we are fully prepared to use our strengths to impress those above. We remain squeamish about acting as enforcers.

The first real step is to be inducted into the crew. We are chosen by a professor to work on a major project of our own. We are not seen as particularly profitable but we are vaguely useful. The tests are many. Acquiring knowledge seems almost secondary to learning the codes, traditions and manners of our crew. We adopt gang colors and sneer at other gangs for their lack of stringent theories or their sloppy methods – we are on the true path, we are the most loyal supporters. We are the small time enforcers pushed forward in conferences and seminars to fight for the amusement of our superiors.

During this process we grow as individuals are singled out for different paths and purposes. We begin to prove our worth and more importantly our potential for increasing the value of our chosen crew. We make our bones by attending and surviving conferences and bringing honor to our supervisors. Failing at this is not an option… many simply disappear for failing here.

The moment of truth occurs when we defend our own positions within the culture of our families. To survive the viva is to become a made man. We leave behind the role of soldier, and have obtained the first step to true power within our families and may begin the journey onwards.

From Wikipedia:

A made man is traditionally seen as “untouchable” by fellow criminals, a man to be respected and feared. To attack, let alone kill, a made man for any reason without the permission of mafiosi higher up in the organization is a cardinal sin normally met with severe retaliation (usually death), often regardless of whether the perpetrator had a legitimate grievance. A made man can however be killed if a good enough reason is provided and the Mafia bosses give permission.

Translation: no grad, undergrad, or PhD student poses a serious threat to your position. But your position within the organization is still insecure. Incurring the displeasure of the capo (professor), the Don (dean of the faculty) or the Consigliere (Faculty Chief administrator) can incur the death penalty or banishment from the family.

From this point we begin to diversify our interests. We still run the scams and games created by those who have sponsored us into the family. Our loyalty is still to the family but we are also beginning to create our own lines of income and power (research grants). This is permissible as long as we still show deference to the Don and make sure he gets a cut (of money and citations). To be profitable is to survive.

If nothing goes wrong, and you continue to prove your worth, you graduate to capo famiglia (full tenure). From this point the underlings look up to you, you walk the campus with a security and sense of power that only the chosen few have. A wave of the hand decides whether underlings live or die. Power struggles within the family (other professors) and with other families (other faculties) are common. Occasionally families act in concert (called a university) and attempt to beat out other universities in vicious turf wars.

The end of a long successful career may lead to a position of respect and admiration (emeritus) however many good soldiers have disappeared on the way.

The Professor as Olympian 

Via @thesiswhisperer I arrived at John Regehr’s post The PhD Grind, and Why Research Isn’t Like Sex which is a comment on Phil Guo’s online book The PhD Grind. Both the blogpost and the book are good reads but what amused me was the final part of the post which attempts to address the question if you are not aiming to be a professor then why do a PhD. To which Guo writes:

Here is an imperfect analogy: Why would anyone spend years training to excel in a sport such as the Ironman Triathlon—a grueling race consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run—when they aren’t going to become professional athletes? In short, this experience pushes people far beyond their physical limits and enables them to emerge stronger as a result. In some ways, doing a Ph.D. is the intellectual equivalent of intense athletic training.

As Guo states it’s an imperfect analogy but the thought of many of my friends, colleagues and I as professional athletes made me laugh out loud. All the years of sitting to close too the screen and reading dense texts hardly give this appearance.

Gold Open Access is Bad for Science Publishing

Recently I was listening to a podcast discussing the recent Finch Report which comes out in favor of the Gold path of Open access. What open access is attempting to resolve is the problem that much of government funded research costs too much before it is made accessible. It costs so much that even some research libraries are unable to access the results.

The basic model is that the researcher applies for funding. This process is time consuming and often fails. Therefore too many people are chasing too little money. Those who are fortunate to receive funding will eventually need to publish their findings in scientific journals in order to advance in their careers (and to push scientific progress forward).

Scientific journals are basically other academics acting as editors and reviewers (for the most part unpaid). So the government is paying the academics to do this work as well. Once the material is published the university libraries have to buy a subscription in order to make the work available to their researchers.

Cash Flow

How many times in this process have we paid for the the results before they are available? In most cases none of the material is available to a wider audience outside academia.

The Gold Route to open access would make research available to researchers and the general public by making the researchers pay the publishers in advance to make their material available. In other words taking the subscription fees from the library budget and adding it on to the research grants.

There are problems with this.

1. The lock in to publishers is still strong. The reason why we are discussing a scientific publishing crisis is that the cost of purchasing access to the articles is too high to bear. Gold Open Access does not address this problem in the long term. Sure, in the beginning it may be cheaper than subscriptions but we are still locked into the publishers who have raised the prices of subscriptions to a level that even wealthy universities are struggling to survive. Do we really think they will not do the same when faced by individual researchers desperate to publish in order to move forward in their careers?

2. The greed issue. Journals need to fill their pages with scientific articles. Isn’t there a danger when they are being paid per article that they will be tempted to dismantle rigorous standards in favor of cash?

And most importantly

3. Authors without funding (Read Mark Carrigan’s excellent piece on this). What about those unfortunate researchers who did not receive funding? Either they will not publish (impossible situation in academia), they will take money from other projects to pay for publishing (Fraud? Embezzlement?) or the universities will have to pay (increases costs again).

As funding is the exception and not the rule (most grant applications are denied) most of the publishing in my field is done without direct financing. For example this summer I am busy writing two articles during my holiday. They are important to me and to my research but they are not funded through projects. But once I publish I will be in a better position to obtain funding – who should pay for this?

The gold route creates a wonderful situation for the publishers and will turn the well financed researchers into direct sub-contractors to the publishers, and those without financing into the beggars.

This is not good science.

Why is plagiarism wrong?

Plagiarism is fascinating. One of the reasons it holds my interest is trying to figure out why we get so worked up about it. On a basic level there seems to be a connection between creators and their creations, but why is this connection given so much importance?

In recent years a German Defence Minister and a Hungarian President lost their jobs because of scandals surrounding plagiarized PhDs. Surely their jobs had nothing to do with their ability to complete a PhD without plagiarism. They lost their jobs because of the perceived dishonesty plagiarism entails. But politicians are held up to strange standards of behavior.

When the author Helene Hegemann was accused of plagiarizing sections of her debut novel Axolotl Roadkill she countered with: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.

There is something interesting with this position – but it would have been stronger if she had put it forward before being found out.

Plagiarism has a strong place within academia but this can be explained by the internal social rules that exist there. Academia is a strange place where science is produced according to an odd set of norms and internal rules that are necessary in that context but are these norms even interesting outside academia?

The academic position on plagiarism is absolute. It is so strong that it is even applied to students in a way that may be harmful to teaching and learning. Here, I do not mean the rare cases where take someone’s work and simply change the name. What I mean here is the case when someone does not adequately use a reference system or when they practice the art of synonyms and re-writing the works of others.

A student work that does not use adequate sources is seen as plagiarism but can consist actually be an example of independent thought. Conversely a work that re-writes and synonymises and references properly is usually not judged as plagiarism – even if it in reality has no independent thought.

The anxiety of the system has led to investments into anti-plagiarism software. But this software does not stop plagiarism. It only teaches students to ensure that they have re-written and referenced enough. The focus is no longer on independent thought but on ensuring deniability and not getting caught.

Ultimately plagiarism and students tends to demand too much of a professionalism of the students and forgets the basic premise that much of learning is derived from copying. Professional academics should still be held to the system of plagiarism today – but should this still apply to students? We need to redefine student plagiarism in some form.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Academia

Together with Åsa over at Ting och Tankar we developed a list of the seven deadly sins of academia. These are the things that kill science and harm those who work in academia. Our list includes:

1. Falsifying: Research is developed and builds on the past. A small error, left unchecked, can create misinformation and harmful practices. They are also incredibly embarrassing if they are caught out.

An infamous example of falsifying data is the fantastic Piltdown man. In 1912 amateur archeologist Charles Dawson found a skull at Piltdown and claimed it was the missing link between ape and man; he called it Eoanthropus Dawsoni. It was not until 1953 that it was proved that the skull and the jawbone was a mix of man and orangutan which had been chemically treated to appear old. Check out Six Notable Archaeological Forgeries in History at Socyberty.

2. Plagiarism: Plagiarism is the attempt to pass of someone else’s ideas as your own. Not bright, not smart and incredibly embarrassing. This is a popular subject in academia and I regularly lecture to students about the topic.

There are so many interesting examples of plagiarism. An interesting one is the case of the former German defense minister Baron Karl-Theodor von und zu Guttenberg who was forced to resign from politics when it was discovered that his PhD thesis was basically one big copy paste job. It wasn’t just plagiarism it was blatantly so. He even copied the introduction to his dissertation from an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. His excuses were many “…over 80 diskettes, and 4 computers, and 2 kids…” but that’s the point – a dissertation is hard work. Passing off someone else’s ideas as your own is not.

3. Sabotage: Sabotage: this is particularly nasty. Instead of attempting to do your own work you focus on destroying others. On the low end of the scale is not to inform others of work that you know they would need (just not nice). On the high end is physically disrupting their work by destroying files, data or planting false evidence in their data.

In a particularly nasty example of the latter a cancer researcher “… began noticing problems with her research materials: switched labels on petri dishes, errant antibodies dumped into her western blots, and several instances of ethanol in her cell culture media.” The police were contacted and hidden cameras were installed in the lab. The results were quick “Within less than 24 hours of being put in, one camera captured Bhrigu acting suspiciously. Under questioning, he confessed, saying that he was trying to slow the student down.” Read the full story: Lab sabotage deemed research misconduct (with exclusive surveillance video) at Nature News Blog.

4. Exaggeration: The actual work of science is not suitable material for a thriller. Scientists spend a great deal of their time reading, thinking and writing. Hardly the stuff blockbuster movies are made of. To make matters worse, science is rarely (if ever) about the big breakthroughs. It’s a collective, incremental process of small, small baby steps. There may therefore be a temptation to overstate the importance of one’s own impact.

An article by Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz in Annals of Internal Medicine (5 May 2009) looks at press releases from academic medical centres made public in 2005. “On a careful look at these results, exaggeration was found to be more common in releases about animal studies than human studies. Out of the 200 releases, 195 included quotes from the scientific investigators: 26% of them were judged to overstate research importance.” British Lung Foundation.
5. Procrastination: This is the art of putting something off. It’s a deadly sin since it is the killer in academia. There can be no PhD student unfamiliar with its effects. It’s so important that there is even a patron saint (Saint Expeditus) to ward of procrastination (you can’t make this stuff up!)

The good thing about procrastination is that we are in good company.

Dr. Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first English language dictionary, is a credible candidate. As his friend Hester Piozzi remembered, he did almost all of his composition last minute, including a famous essay about procrastination for The Rambler, which he finished while the errand boy waited outside to bring it to press. Or consider Richard Sheridan, a politician and playwright, who did Dr. Johnson one better; he finished writing the final act for his play The School for Scandal while it was being performed on opening night, bringing down lines piecemeal to the actors. And then there is Leonardo Da Vinci. Who among us is called out as a distractible, doodling scatterbrain by a pope? An exasperated Leo X exclaimed, “This man will never accomplish anything! He thinks of the end before the beginning.” (The Greatest Procrastinator in History Still Alive: Puts Off Death in Psychology Today)

What’s worse than procrastination? Apparently Perendination: To put off until the day after tomorrow.

6. Territoriality: Attempting to exclude research or a researcher by drawing boundaries around your own research discipline. This is a form of dogmatic attack against the work of someone you dislike. You do not belong here, you do not belong in our discipline, and your ideas are less valid since your undergrad degree comes from the wrong field.

Strangely enough the most common form of attack is to find an obscure theoretician within the field, often some great thinker to whom everyone refers (but few bother to read) and attempt to hit the invader over the head with.

A typical situation is to engage the opponent in a discussion on an obscure (and often irrelevant for the main discussion) point in the works of the great. The goal is to either get the invader to accept the speaker’s mastery of the subject – or even better an admission of ignorance! Ah the joy when the speaker can smile knowingly in shock and horror to signify that your discipline lacks all value.

I have written about this here.

7. Techno-Adoration: Whether it’s the Large Hadron Collider, a better hydrophone or a new laptop scientists love toys. They are necessary but can easily become an end to themselves. In the pursuit of science it is easy to image that we will get better results just as soon as we get a better machine. As science often requires expensive investments into special purpose tools it is not unusual for the pursuit of science to become the pursuit of the next new shiny toy.

My absolute favorite science toy must be the specially modified radio controlled helicopter designed to collect whale snot on petri dishes. Mind you, this toy helped Dr. Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse win an IG Noble Prize in 2010.

 

Social media and academia: notes from a lecture

Today I held a lecture (in Swedish) about the potential of social media for academic researchers. It had the silly subtitle: Can Facebook make you a better researcher?

To set the scene the lecture began with a quote from Plato’s Republic (1982, p116) by Peter Medawar on what a scientist is:

“Scientists are people of very dissimilar temperaments doing different things in very different ways. Among scientists are collectors, classifiers and compulsive tidiers-up; many are detectives by temperament and many are explorers; some are artists and others artisans. There are poet-scientists and philosopher-scientists and even a few mystics.”

The purpose of the quote was to set the groundwork and remind the audience (all scientists) that we are all different in our motivation, inclinations and methods and therefore we need to find a common ground to be able to discuss what it is that we do.

This common ground is the actual organization within which all these diverse individuals carry out their activities: The university. I showed a timeline with the establishment of the University of Bologna in 1088, University of Paris 1150, a charter of academic freedom (Constitutio Habita) in 1155, University of Cambridge (1209), University of Salamanca (1218), University of Uppsala (1477) and University of Lund (1666).

In addition to this I reminded the audience that the enlightenment project began in c:a 1650 and that the first purely scientific journal the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society commenced in 1665.

The point of all this was to set the stage for the fact that the topic of my talk was how a recent technology is affecting a well-established system. The Internet (ArpaNet) was connected in 1969 and the World Wide Web in 1991. The technological infrastructure of my talk is just ten years old.

So why should a system that has worked for 1000 years care about this new, new thing?

To answer this I pointed out that all systems have within them flaws. No matter how well a system works it carries within it the negatives as well as the positives. So in order to be an improvement the new systems must negate the flaws while maintaining the positives.

To exemplify inherent flaws I talked about affordances and showed an example of anti-homeless technology. Anti-homeless technology turns regulation of society into technology and removes the need for democratic process. I showed the flaws of printed works with the Wicked Bible of 1631 – where a small error in the printing changed one of the ten commandments into: Thou shalt commit adultery. And an example of the dangers of trusting authority by discussing the Sokal Affair. Here I used a quote from Alan Sokal’s discussion of what he had done in his infamous article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” (Social Text Spring/Summer 1996)

The fundamental silliness of my article lies… in the dubiousness of its central thesis and of the “reasoning” adduced to support it. Basically, I claim that quantum gravity… has profound political implications… Finally, I jump (again without argument) to the assertion that “postmodern science” has abolished the concept of objective reality. Nowhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions. (Alan Sokal “A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies“ Lingua Franca 1996).

Following this I returned to the promises made by the enlightenment project: freedom from dogma, evidence based studies, individual before authority, science before belief, freedoms of expression and democracy etc.

The problem with many of these great promises is that they were not made available to a wider audience. In part this may be because the wider audience is not ready for the promises but also because the communications infrastructure was in the hands of a smaller group. The latter could be due to monopolies, political control or limited popular knowledge but still the general public was largely outside the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

Technology began to ease these limitations and create a possibility for larger groups to participate. Indeed through the last centuries work in digitalization and connectivity and the cheapening of a multitude of personal devices the whole game plan has changed radically. I like to argue that in relation to many of the enlightenment promises the theoretically possible becomes the inevitable – for good and for bad.

Scientists and universities are now living in a world where the larger audience has the ability to connect and comment so how does this make individuals into better researchers?

Well in the lecture I focus on two aspects: communication and networks.

The ability, created by technology, for the researcher to communicate via blogs provides a potential. While many see the “new” technology as a waste of time – and many universities see little or no value in blogs – at least I have yet to come across a university that rewards its researchers for blogging (even though some pay lip-service to the act).

Therefore it is up to the individual – from his/her own perspective to find a reason for finding the activity rewarding. In order to demonstrate this I provided my reasons why academics should blog:

Practice: No matter how much you write you can always practice. Now writing papers is practice but papers demand a more rigorous approach. Get it wrong and the work is wasted (almost). Rejection makes it difficult to feel that the writing has been worthwhile so the writer tries very hard to fit in to the form set by the community. Blogging on the other hand – can be – freer. It provides an interesting arena for experimentation with the lighter, wilder, weirder ideas that research generates. Naturally you will be argued against but it is doubtful you will be shot down in the same ways as you are in a paper.

Marketing: Lets face it, not many people really read papers. Many are virtually unread. Getting a paper published can do little more than another line to the CV. Hardly the kind of thing that builds your reputation. And another thing we must face, researchers live in several marketplaces. We like to think of ourselves as living in pure (ivory towers of) research but in reality we are always in need of funding, collaboration and access. We are selling ourselves – it may not be pretty but it is difficult to deny.

Shorts: Blogging is amazing for pushing out small ideas. The stuff that you think you may eventually write about – if you ever get the time – but probably never will. An insightful blogpost is more useful to you and to the world than the half written notes in a forgotten corner of your harddrive.

Explaining yourself: As a newbie PhD student one of my professors always said that I should be able to explain the relevance of my research within 60 seconds, or the amount of time it took for a short elevator ride. The point being that most people are not interested and to be able to explain the relevance of what you do is vital. Blogging can help you practice and hone these skills.

Feedback: Too much academic feedback is stuck in the formalia. Making the writing fit the journal or community requirements. When you blog the people who do comment or argue with you demand that you stick to the point rather than the format. It can be brutal but it’s always valuable.

Community: As a researcher you become a nerd. And not in the (now) popular way. You are dealing with some really obscure shit. Getting out there and talking increases the chances of other nerds finding you and accepting you. This is important because you can never have too many friends.

Competitive edge: Blogging alone will not make you into a successful academic. But it will provide you with a competitive edge. Your work will be more widely known. Maybe even more widely read. Whatever happens no researcher loses on not being heard of.

Serendipity: Researchers became researchers because they love research. Its not a highly social skill set. We tend to stick around in libraries, labs or departments. Seriously simply by being online we increase the chances of happy occurrences that may improve our contacts, lives and research. Sure this is a very optimistic worldview but hoping for serendipity sure beats the alternative.

No, I have not read your gods

Warning: Pointless rant.

Much of my work is multi or cross-disciplinary which means that I get to meet lots of fascinating people in different departments and from different disciplines. It all began when I moved from law to technology. I needed to learn new theoretical frameworks, new canons of literature, new methods and approaches etc.

I had moved to provide valuable insights from a different perspective to the department but in reality I needed to learn their language and culture to be able to talk. In doing so I lost some of the language and culture that made me unique and valuable to the department.

One of the problems with multidisciplinary work is that it can easily fail unless both disciplines are open to accept new ideas.

Once I had left my comfort zone I realized that I might as well continue to roam about and have been lucky enough to join in several fascinating discussions from the perspectives of many different disciplines. The people and arguments I have met have enriched my own thinking in ways that single disciplines could not.

But every now and then the nasty face of dogmatism appears. Someone at some department challenges me: you do not belong here, you do not belong in our discipline, and your ideas are less valid since your undergrad degree comes from the wrong field.

In a recent episode of Big Bang Theory, Sheldon asks Penny for acting lessons to improve his teaching:

Penny: Let´s take you out of your comfort zone
Sheldon: Why would we want to do that? It´s call the comfort zone for a reason

But I digress.

Strangely enough the most common form of attack is to find an obscure theoretician within the field, often some great thinker to whom everyone refers (but few bother to read) and attempt to hit the invader over the head with.

A typical situation is to engage the invader in a discussion on an obscure (and often irrelevant for the main discussion) point in the works of the great. The goal is to either get the invader to accept the speaker’s mastery of the subject – or even better an admission of ignorance! Ah the joy when the speaker can smile knowingly in shock and horror to signify that your discipline lacks all value.

This is an academic pissing contest. And from experience there are four strategies: attack, counter, deceive, evade.

To attack is to meet the speaker head on. This is an “all in” strategy. It looks brilliant if you win by flattening the opponent. You are king of the little pile – the alpha male in the seminar room – but it is not a long-term strategy. You can never be best at everything and it does not support cooperation.

Counter is to attack but not on equal terms. Instead of meeting the opponent with his or her own weapons you bring out your own armies. Dust of a dead theory from your own field and force the speaker into a battle on your own terms. Less impressive and still crap for long-term cooperation.

Deception is another strategy. This is basically faking it (partly or completely) you have no idea what they are on about but you might get away with it. This approach is massively horrible if it fails later. It is also damaging for the ego if you succeed in pulling it off. Not good for long-term cooperation. It is the grown up version of lying to the teacher about doing your homework. It is pissing in your own pants when it is cold outside (warm at first but cold in the long run). It is strangely also the most commonly used strategy. In my more pessimistic periods I believe all of academia is filled with people faking it.

Evasion is basically letting the running bull pass the flag. Admit to not knowing of this academic giant. Ask the speaker to explain briefly and question on why that particular theorist is relevant to the discussion in hand. Don’t be put of with comments like “I will send you an article” – if the speaker wanted a fight, give him/her one. But make sure he/she does the work. Demand to know the relevance of the theory, be polite, inquisitive, learning and hoist the s.o.b. on his own petard. Its not good for long term collaboration, but why on earth would you want to work with the little shit anyway?

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I leave you with the Omid Djalili demonstrating effects of different cultures in an argument: