Some Academic Agonistes

Understanding the quotidian, from “College Misery“:

I know my colleagues think I’m lazy because I’m not standing in the hallways like them all day and night. When I do show up to work – on time and before my class – the “veterans,” who are always huddled together talking about how hard their lives all are, swivel their heads, say a begrudinging hello, and turn their noses up as if they caught a whiff of something bad.

For a time I let it bother me and felt a little out of place, but I got over it. I know I’m doing my job well and have the student evaluations to prove it. …

What I’m saying is that this is an important profession and we do important work, but it’s just a job, people. I think that a lot of you would be a lot happier if you’d just relax a bit. If your student doesn’t staple his paper? Staple it. What’s the big deal. They take a phone call in class? You mean you’re that insecure that you can’t just shut them down and keep going? (h/t Clarissa)

Understanding the long game, by Jon F. Wilkins:

Randy Schekman made news this week when he published a column in the Guardian, where he proclaimed that his lab would be boycotting Science, Nature, and Cell, probably the three most prominent scientific journals.

There is a lot to be happy about in Schekman’s column. Most of all for its existence: Schekman just won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, and he is using his fifteen minutes at the Bully Pulpit to draw attention to our deeply flawed system of valuing science, including how we fund and publish it. At a minimum, his column has reignited interest in an extremely important topic, and has already spawned a number of responses, including interesting thoughts from Michael EisenRetraction WatchLuboš MotlPZ MyersJunk ScienceScholarly Kitchen, and mathbionerd.

But is he right about the problem? The solution? I’m not sure.

Schekman argues that a key problem is the influence of these “luxury” journals. Yes they publish some good and interesting science, but not everything they publish is good, and not everything good gets published there. In fact, there is an argument to be made that a paper published in a quality field-specific journal is more likely to contain good, solid science than a typical luxury journal paper, at least on average.

Yet, in many fields, publication in one of these fancy journals is a, if not the, primary determinant of who gets that tenure-track slot at the big research university. This, then, distorts the incentives on scientists. Rather than trying to do good science, young scientists feel that they need to do something flashy. This can lead to asking the questions that sound deep in a cocktail-party setting, rather than the questions that actually are deep, and that move the field forward in a meaningful way.

He’s right about this, of course. In fact, there are a couple of additional problems that arise from the Science/Nature/Cell-publication-equals-job system. One is stochasticity. There is always going to be a random element that goes into getting a paper accepted by these journals. There is also a degree of randomness in the nature of science itself. Sometimes you ask the right question, and the answer turns out to be a little dry, or a lot complicated. That means that, no matter how skilled a scientist you are, you’re not going to be publishing your work in one of the glossy magazines. (from “Science, Nature, and Cell Aren’t the Problem, Exactly” – h/t Jenny Basil)

No comments yet»

Leave a Reply