Academia: Survival of the Bitterest?

t4_-1069229323Jan Klimas is a scientist, artist, thinker and writer who’s interested in communicating with the public and using art to blend boundaries between the two disciplines. Check out his blog, and follow him on twitter @janklimas.


In dance, I call it Survival of the Bitterest. The choreographers who stick around are often the ones most comfortable feeling bitter and resentful. My artistic mentors were brilliant artists. But I do not want to live the lives they led.

Andrew Simonet


Academia: a bitter dance for survival (Photo: David DeSilva)

What do dance and science have in common? What makes a successful choreographer or scientist? In this post, I speculate about the bitterness of the academic dance for survival. The academic competition is cruel and uneven. The fittest may not survive, but the bitterest thrive.

Before we dive deep into the murky academic waters, let’s define our objectives. Is survival worth the fight? Is it really a fight, or just a game? Survival is “a natural process resulting in the evolution of organisms best adapted to the environment” – academics would give anything to be the most evolved and the best adapted.

We strive to get tenure. Other occupations call it a permanent job. Few make it and most have to fulfill harsh criteria to keep their tenure, bringing in a lot of research funding, or taking on a heavy teaching load.


Source: Oui Stock Images

Papers are the currency of our world. The one who has the most is the richest. Because money follows money, the more articles an academic co-authors, the higher her chances of getting more money (i.e., more research grants). Like tokens of appreciation, authorships on papers are gifts that some scientists give to each other as a gesture of appreciation, friendship or a promise of a future token. Agencies give grants to people with most of these tokens. Journal editors publish their friends’ work.

In such a system, the most published may not be the best; instead they are the most popular or they know how to play the system. In such a system, novice scientists’ willingness to park their writing integrity is challenged. Some may find refuge in writing non-academic literature, but for most, the peer-reviewed “romance” pays the mortgage.

Some big research centres are like fiction factories. They pay people to write articles; the purpose of those articles is to bring in more cash. Fiction factories operate like famous brands, where the name of a famous academic becomes a brand instead of signifying who wrote the paper. James Patterson, for example, “heralded as the world’s best paid writer, is the world’s most successful fiction factory,” writes Michelle Demers. Just like Patterson, the chief scientist comes at the end of writing, puts a few finishing touches and their names on the final product.

The road to tenure is paved with the PhD students that an academic supervises. This inflates the need for scientifically-trained workforce whereas the sole purpose of taking on a PhD student is, in many cases, to get the professor closer to the tenure. We don’t need so many PhDs. “PhD ‘overproduction’ is not new and faculty retirements won’t solve it,” writes Melonie Fullick in her speculative diction at University Affairs, “Yet somehow no matter how many PhDs enroll and graduate, academic careers are the goal.”

Overproduction-dependent career progression and dubious writing practices are only two of the many symptoms of a sick system. The best way to navigate such an unhealthy organised science is to bring both passion and dispassion to the task. Build up a dispassionate, bulletproof shield of resilience, unless you are willing to get sick yourself.

Some are born resilient. But for most, it takes years to become hardy. Much like Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development, resilience grows in stages. A crisis happens at each stage of development. A developmental task must be fulfilled for progress into the next stage. The infant learns hope by resolving the trust vs. mistrust crisis. A young adult breaks through the isolation, discovers intimacy and acquires love.

My own anecdotal evidence suggests the following developmental stages of early academic career: i) solitude, ii) despair, iii) good science/bad science, iv) fear and loathing, and v) workaholism. Getting through these stages takes you pretty far on the bitter road, but get ready to be the bitterest if you want to stick around.

Stages of development

  • Solitude: For the extroverts, this stage is excruciating. As they focus on the work, their social networks suffer. The computer becomes their best friend. Introverts find working alone easier, but it can be hard at the start. The junior scientist embraces loneliness in exchange for better concentration.
  • Despair: Some come into academia with genuine prosocial intentions. When they hit the brick wall of loneliness and parked integrity, they collapse. Too much science is done only for the sake of science and for personal interest. Finding the right balance between the need for helping others and promoting oneself moves the young scientist to the next stage.
  • Good science vs. bad science: OK, so if I can’t change the world through science, let’s just do it right so that the bad guys don’t win. Unlike fairy tales, the good scientists don’t always win. Bad science informs policy. Bad science receives funding. The fight for good science is endless. New researchers must decide which side of the battle they join.
  • Fear and loathing: power and control, greed and envy are common in academia. Fear is a natural reaction of junior scientists towards the loathsome deeds of some senior scientists. Scientists are humans too. They err. Some err too much and don’t acknowledge their mistakes. It is up to the junior scientists then to stay or to leave the kitchen if they can’t stand the heat. Learning to detach resolves this developmental conflict.
  • Workaholism: The balance is not static. It changes all the time. Latch on to the dynamic, forget about the static. The early-career scholar’s task is to make a healthy lifestyle their number one work tool.

The path to academic success is rough and bitter. Bitterness is the key to survival, but happiness lies in enjoying the journey, rather than focusing on the bitter end.

Co-authoring: Now with 60% more croquet!

Co-authoring papers can be an enriching and enlightening academic experience. It can also be a complete nightmare. This post is your complete guide for navigating the process.1

Step One: finding a co-author
First things first, ensure that you are authoring your paper with a living, human academic. Living human academics are more responsive than dead humans and non-human animals, albeit only marginally.

Step Two: write a paper
Easy as ABC.

Step Three: agreeing on author order
Once you have written your collaborative masterpiece, you will face the biggest challenge of the process: determining author order. If you have a borderline personality disorder, you can probably get away with taking all the credit for yourself, but for the rest of us some well-established procedures apply. A comprehensive review of all papers published between 1974-1998 which openly disclose the method used to determine author order (2 papers) reveals that there are 2 established methods for determining author order:

  1. Croquet.
  2. Proximity to tenure decisions.

Determination of author order, method #1: Croquet
The traditional method, as described by Hassell & May (1974),2 is a croquet tournament, described as follows:

The order of authorship was determined from a twenty-five-game croquet series held at Imperial College Field Station during summer 1973.

Not described in the paper are the somewhat underhand methods used by Hassell & May to ensure their victory in such tournaments:3

Croquet was played every lunch time during May’s summer visits on a pitch customised by a large population of rabbits. Visitors were invited to play though inevitably lost due to the huge home-team advantage knowledge of the pitch’s precise topography afforded. Visitors also frequently declared themselves disadvantaged by the alleged tactic of being asked complex ecological questions mid-stroke. This was a different game from the traditional English vicarage-lawn contest!

If you are not au fait with croquet,4 you can learn all about this “curious ancient pastime” from Joseph Strutt’s seminal 1801 book,5 concisely titled:

The Sports And Pastimes Of The People Of England From The Earliest Period, Including The Rural And Domestic Recreations, May Games, Mummeries, Pageants, Processions And Pompous Spectacles, Illustrated By Reproductions From Ancient Paintings In Which Are Represented Most Of The Popular Diversions

Or you can just read the Wikipedia article.6

A Curious and Ancient Pastime

A Curious and Ancient Pastime

If your university happens to have a field station, your task is made much easier. Likewise, if you live in the UK, you may find that your university already has a croquet club – Oxford, Cambridge and Nottingham seem to be leading the way. Wherever you go, make sure that you do not play next to a cricket field for health and safety reasons.

Early example of the Croquet Method in use. The scholars pictured are presumably using a croquet tournament to settle the order of authorship on their latest collaborative paper discussing postmodernism in feminist theory. Harper's Weekly 10 (September 10, 1866) p.568.

Early example of the Croquet Method in use. The scholars pictured are using a croquet tournament to settle the order of authorship on their latest collaborative paper discussing postmodernism in feminist theory.7 Harper’s Weekly 10 (September 10, 1866) p.568.

If you live do not live somewhere sufficiently civilised to have a croquet club you should consider moving. Otherwise you can fashion your own croquet set. This is very easy and you can customise your kit to represent the game of croquet played in Alice in Wonderland. To further the effect, it is a good idea to dress as Alice during the tournament.

A group of academics going 'Full Alice'.

A group of academics going ‘Full Alice’.

It is difficult to estimate the prevalence of the croquet method. However, studies show that “croquet players are on the whole wealthy people”,8 which is at odds with the remuneration generally provided to academics. At least one participant in the aforementioned study noted the presence of academics, lending some credence to the method. Just don’t take it too seriously as9

Croquet is usually stereotyped as a genteel game, less a sport than a social function, and more suited to genial conversation and unfettered flirtation than strident competition 

Determination of author order, method #2: Proximity to tenure decisions
Winning the award for academic honesty are Roderick and Gillespie (2002),10 who admit that:

Order of authorship was determined by proximity to tenure decisions.

Perhaps less sophisticated than croquet, but hey, everybody wants to be loved tenured. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this approach is substantiated by the literature. In one survey of 127 papers, 4 determined author order by proximity to tenure decisions, i.e. about 3%.11 I’d like to bet the true figure is much higher.

Step Three: remember to credit all authors and don’t spell their names wrong So you’ve found some human co-authors, written your masterpiece and completed your croquet odyssey. Now all you have to do is credit all your authors. Sounds easy, but sometimes you might have 4 or 5 authors. Or 90.12 Or 2924.13 “But I would never forget an author, and I am so careful with spelling!”, I hear you protest across the ether. I am sure that Ms. L.L. Chen and Mr. C. Hui would have said exactly the same. That is until they completely forgot about their poor third co-author, one, Z.S. Lin. In the same fashion, this bunch managed to overlook no fewer than 5 authors in their Nature paper on ‘The zebrafish reference genome sequence and its relationship to the human genome’. They also spelt a number of names wrong and mixed up their funding sources! They at least realised their error reasonably quickly. Presumably one or more of the ‘forgotten five’14 opened up their latest issue of Nature with all the urgency and anticipation of a child unwrapping presents at Christmas, ready to see their name in the leading journal of their field, a recognition of their fantastic contributions to science… only to find they were not credited. Not sure what happened then with this paper in Ecology Letters, where it took 2 years to notice that a couple of co-authors were missing.

Damming evidence of co-author amnesia.

Damming evidence of co-author amnesia.

Finally, if you are given the opportunity to transliterate author names to Chinese, make sure you don’t inadvertently write a co-author’s name as 韦小宝. Unless of course that co-author is, in fact, a demi-Emperor, son of a prostitute, with 8 wives.

Thanks to @ProfLiJin for the translation!

Thanks to @ProfLiJin for the translation!

So there you have it. Happy collaborating!

  1. Not really complete, nor a guide.
  2. Hassell, M.P. & May, R.M., ‘Aggregation of predators and insect parasites and its effect on stability’ (1974) 43 Journal of Animal Ecology 567-594.
  3. Godfray, C., ‘Hassell, M. P. & May, R. M. (1973)’ (British Ecology Society, 100 Influential Papers series no. 13, 2013)
  4. I’m a poet, and I didn’t even realise
  5. Strutt, J., The Sports And Pastimes Of The People Of England From The Earliest Period (London Methuen, London, 1801)
  6. For those interested in further study, the Journal of Sport History kindly provides access to some further reading, including: Sterngass, J., ‘Cheating, Gender Roles, and the Nineteenth-Century Croquet Craze’ (1998) 25(3) Journal of Sport History 398-418 (pdf); and Lewis, R. M., ‘American Croquet in the 1860s: Playing the Game and Winning’ (1991) 18(3) Journal of Sport History 365-386 (pdf).
  7. Probably.
  8. Carter, K., ‘A Survey of Croquet Players’ (Profundus Consulting, April 2007)
  9. Sterngass, J., ‘Cheating, Gender Roles, and the Nineteenth-Century Croquet Craze’ (1998) 25(3) Journal of Sport History 398-418
  10. Roderick, G. K. & Gillespie, R. G., ‘Speciation and phylogeography of Hawaiian terrestrial arthropods’ (1998) Molecular Ecology 7(4) 519–531
  11. Hart, R., ‘Co-authorship in the academic library literature: A survey of attitudes and behaviors’ (2000) 26(5) The Journal of Academic Librarianship 339–345
  12.  Keith R Bradnam, Joseph N Fass, Anton Alexandrov, Paul Baranay, Michael Bechner, Inanç Birol, Sébastien Boisvert, Jarrod A Chapman, Guillaume Chapuis, Rayan Chikhi, Hamidreza Chitsaz, Wen-Chi Chou, Jacques Corbeil,Cristian Del Fabbro, T Roderick Docking, Richard Durbin, Dent Earl, Scott Emrich,Pavel Fedotov, Nuno A Fonseca, Ganeshkumar Ganapathy, Richard A Gibbs,Sante Gnerre, Élénie Godzaridis, Steve Goldstein, Matthias Haimel, Giles Hall,David Haussler, Joseph B Hiatt, Isaac Y Ho, Jason Howard, Martin Hunt, Shaun D Jackman, David B Jaffe, Erich D Jarvis, Huaiyang Jiang, Sergey Kazakov, Paul J Kersey, Jacob O Kitzman, James R Knight, Sergey Koren, Tak-Wah Lam,Dominique Lavenier, François Laviolette, Yingrui Li, Zhenyu Li, Binghang Liu, Yue Liu, Ruibang Luo, Iain MacCallum, Matthew D MacManes, Nicolas Maillet, Sergey Melnikov, Delphine Naquin, Zemin Ning, Thomas D Otto,Benedict Paten, Octávio S Paulo, Adam M Phillippy, Francisco Pina-Martins,Michael Place, Dariusz Przybylski, Xiang Qin, Carson Qu, Filipe J Ribeiro,Stephen Richards, Daniel S Rokhsar, J Graham Ruby, Simone Scalabrin,Michael C Schatz, David C Schwartz, Alexey Sergushichev, Ted Sharpe, Timothy I Shaw, Jay Shendure, Yujian Shi, Jared T Simpson, Henry Song, Fedor Tsarev, Francesco Vezzi, Riccardo Vicedomini, Bruno M Vieira, Jun Wang, Kim C Worley, Shuangye Yin, Siu-Ming Yiu, Jianying Yuan, Guojie Zhang, Hao Zhang, Shiguo Zhou and Ian F Korf, ‘Assemblathon 2: evaluating de novo methods of genome assembly in three vertebrate species’ (2013) 2(1) GigaScience
  13. Obviously not going to reproduce 24 pages of author names. But you can count them for yourself: Aad, G. et al. et al. et al al al., ‘The ATLAS Experiment at the CERN Large Hadron Collider’ (2008) Journal of the Institute of Physics Publishing
  14. ‘The Forgotten Five’ also happens to be the name of a piece of One Direction fan fiction in which the “band named one direction go down in a plane crash and wind up back at their flat as ghost and realize someone buys the house they do whatever they can to get them out” (sic – the whole blurb)

The Last Writes: posthumous publishing

Over on his Chemical connections blog, Stuart Cantrill posted an article last year entitled ‘The Last Writes‘.1  He mentions a number of academics, chemists in particular, that have published posthumously. In the arts and in literature it is not at all uncommon for works to be released after death, however it is hard to imagine many cases where the same might apply in academia. Perhaps there is a 3-4 year window left open by the glacial pace of academic publishing, but beyond that, your days are numbered, so to speak. Two instances in particular caught my eye.

Firstly, Alfred Werner, the first inorganic chemist to win the Nobel prize. A paper published in 2011 used the ubiquitous asterisk footnote to flag the fact that one author, Werner, died in 1919. This means that Werner published his most recent paper a staggering 82 years after his death!

Coming a distant second in this rather bizarre contest is another Nobel laureate in Chemistry, Robert B. Woodward. Woodward was the preeminent chemist of his day, and was known for synthesising many natural compounds for the first time. Woodward authored around 200 papers in his life and was so prolific in the lab that the pace of his scientific discoveries outstripped his ability to publish. As a result, much of his work was published after his death. So it was that in 1993 Woodward was able to co-author a paper, 13 years after his death.

I haven’t been able to find any examples of posthumous publishing in other fields. If you come across any, please do let me know!

  1. Thanks Stuart for the great pun. Try as I might, I couldn’t better this one!