Monday, April 25, 2016

When success in academia comes at a high price

Last month, I published a blogpost on “Crossroads of an early career researcher”, lamenting that for an early career researcher, taking steps to be a successful academic often goes counter the principles of being a good scientist (inspired by a table featured in this blogpost by Gerald Carter). My blogpost has gotten almost 2,000 views (4x more than my second-most-read post), suggesting that the idea resonates with many colleagues. The Times Higher Education even reposted me, although they changed the title to the slightly more provocative “Good scientist or successful academic? You can’t be both!”

The title did not elicit 100% positive reactions, as some people were opposed to the idea that it’s impossible to be good and successful at the same time. I agree – as I have stressed in the blog post, I have been very fortunate to work with senior colleagues who are both successful and good scientists. Others pointed out that being a good versus a successful scientist is not a straight-forward dichotomy: you have to be a bit of both; or, you have to spend your early years becoming a successful academic, and once your position is secured, you can focus on producing good science. While I understand the reasoning behind these suggestions, I disagree. In my view, taking steps to being a successful academic is fully justified – as long as they, in no way, compromise the quality of science. The path from being a blue-eyed scientist, whose only ambition it is to make the world a better place with their research, to a ruthless academic who publishes anything they get their hands on while being fully aware that it’s probably BS, may be a slippery slope.

Let’s imagine a post-doc who is pressured to publish one p-hacked study after another, because their contract is extended only if they have a certain number of publications. On a human level, one can sympathise with this post-doc. Finally, this post-doc gets a lecturing position. But their woes are not over: they need to publish to be promoted, to stop the university administration from forcing them to go to a part-time position, or changing their position to a teaching one, while expecting them to produce the same amount of papers. These are all real scenarios, from real universities. Even for a full professor, there is pressure to continue receiving grants and produce results that make the university proud (quantity, not necessarily quality-wise, that is). Thus, there is no point at which one can stop focussing on being a successful academic, and start doing good science*.

The desire to be a good scientist and to be a successful academic are probably independent of each other: one can be high on both, low on both (in this case one would probably not stay in academia for very long), or high on one and low on the other. An academic who is high on the desire to be a successful academic, but doesn’t really give a sh*t about science (hereafter referred to as the Pimp) is both dangerous and unpleasant, and (as a symbolical figure) probably one of the main reasons for the replicability crisis we’ve found ourselves in. If the current system rewards academics such as the Pimp, it is clear that incentives need to be changed. While – again – there is nothing wrong with wanting to be successful, the Pimp, by definition, engages in practices that are hurtful to science.

The Pimp, of course, is a hypothetical creature: most academics have a mixture of desire to become a good scientist and successful. I have never worked with a Pimp, but I have heard horror stories from many different people – at work, at home, at Friday night drinks, while travelling. Horror stories are told by the Pimp’s subordinates, who get a terrifying insights into how the Pimp’s lab works – often resulting in their leaving academia (especially if they’ve never worked in a lab with better values and working conditions). What I know about Pimps is therefore based on their interactions with students and post-docs. Outside of their supervisory roles – who knows? – they may be perfectly lovely people.

There is a considerable amount of overlap in the horror stories that I’ve been told: across disciplines, across countries, genders, and languages. This makes me fear that Pimp-like creatures may not be that uncommon. Below, I put my mental image of a Pimp, a caricature, to paper. Again, this is based on stories I have heard from numerous people, so it does *not* describe a single person.

The Pimp
The Pimp fully relies on his inferiors to produce publishable data. Their perceived role as a supervisor is to summon their students or post-docs regularly into their office, and tell them to publish more. They don’t care what the students do with their data, as long as it’s publishable. A student or post-doc is more likely to be in trouble with the Pimp for obtaining non-significant results than for fabricating data. In isolated cases, the Pimp takes credit for their subordinates’ work, presenting it at conferences or even in publications, while conveniently forgetting to mention that the experiment was designed, executed, analysed, and written up by somebody else.

With minimal supervision, students often feel like they are being thrown into cold water, and they are supposed to do things without knowing what, or how. For example, this means that they are not told that practices such as post-hoc data trimming and using optional stopping rules to obtain a p < 0.05 are bad.

But isn’t academia all about overcoming adversity, and learning to work independently? If a student stays afloat, clearly they will go far (and the Pimp can squeeze publications of out them). Someone who drowns – well, they don’t really have what it takes, anyway (and they’re a bad investment for the Pimp).

Pimps often work hard (not smart), and expect their students to do the same. What, you’d rather spend the Christmas week with your spouse and children than in the lab? Clearly, you’re not a real scientist – I will bear this in mind for the next grant application. If you really love science, you should be prepared to sacrifice your hobbies, your family, even your mental and physical health. Or, as a Pimp repeatedly told a PhD student: You need to get out of your comfort zone.

A popular trick of the Pimp is to hire international students and post-docs. With a vague promise that they may receive something more permanent at some stage, and with different cultural expectations about what constitutes hard work, international subordinates will not complain about working 12 hours a day and 7 days a week. At least, not to authority. 


* Although one could possibly make a career by publishing a lot of BS throughout their early years, and spending the rest of their lives refuting one’s own work.

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