Monday, January 13, 2014

The generosity of academics

A cool tumblr gives credit to the often under-acknowledged kindness of academics It’s a topic I sometimes think about, because the culture of academics (at least for ecology) has always seemed to me to be driven by generous interactions.

Most of us have a growing lifetime acknowledgement list starting at the earliest point in our careers. After four years in my PhD, my thesis’ acknowledgements included other graduate students and lab mates, post-docs, undergrads, faculty at several institutions, and my supervisor. Almost everyone on this list expected nothing in exchange for their time and knowledge. Of course there are going to be exceptions, people who refuse to share their data, rarely interact with strangers, have little time for grad students, or are difficult to interact with. But that's pretty exceptional. Instead, one-sided  interactions regularly occur. Where else could you email a stranger, hoping they will meet with you at a conference to talk about your research? Or have a distant lab mail you cultures to replace ones that died? Or email the creator of an R package, because you can’t figure out where your data is going wrong, and get a detailed reply? And these aren’t untypical interactions in academia.

The lower you are down the academic ladder, the more you benefit from (maybe rely on) the kindness of busy people – committee members, collaborators, lab managers. Busy, successful faculty members, for example, took time to meet with me many times, kindly and patiently answering my questions. I can think of two reasons for this atmosphere, first that most ecologists simply are passionate about their science. They like to think about it, talk about, and exchange ideas with other people who are similarly inclined. The typical visit of an invited speaker includes hours and hours of meetings and meals with students, and most seem to relish this. Like most believers, they have a little of the zeal of the converted. Secondly, many of the structures of academic science rely heavily on goodwill and generosity. For example, reviews of journal submissions rely entirely on a system of volunteerism. That would be untenable for most businesses, but has survived this far in academic publishing. Grad student committees, although they have some value for tenure applications, are mostly dependent on the golden rule (I’ll be on your student’s committee, if you’ll be on mine). And then there are supervisor/supervisee relationships. These obviously vary between personalities, and universities, and countries, but good supervisors invest far more time and energy than the bare minimum necessary to get publications and a highly qualified personal out of it. That we rely on these interactions so heavily becomes most apparent when they fail—when you wait months on a paper because there are no reviewers, when your supervisor disappears—progress stops.

Of course, this sort of system only lasts if everyone feels like they gain some benefit, and everyone feels like the weight on them is fair. The ongoing problems with the review system suggest that this isn’t always true. Still, the posts on are a reminder of that altruism is still alive and well in academia.

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