Who do you work with? – A reflection on pedigree and the relational in research

“Who do you work with?” The question was posed to me more than 20 years ago. It as asked just as I had sat down with a prominent male professor at a prestigious US university. I had got the appointment by emailing him, and was more than ready to talk about my PhD project and to get his insights into how I could to develop it. I had sent him a page outlining my work, to spare him the trouble to read through the full thesis proposal I had just completed before leaving for my 4 month stay in the US. And then this question. I had no idea what it meant, and answered that I had conceived of the project myself and that it had certainly not been handed down to me by some senior scholar. As a visiting PhD student I had just begun to sense that there actually might be a difference between being a Swedish PhD student, treated almost as faculty at home, and an American grad student.

It took more than a decade until I understood that I had given the wrong answer, and that I had completely misunderstood the question. He had asked for my pedigree, because that was a way to assess whether I was someone worthwhile spending time on. I had thought he asked about the provenance of the project. Hence, I had insisted that this was my project and not a project concocted by some professor for whom I worked. I guess that what he heard was that there were no one vouching. Hence, in hindsight, he must have pretty quickly concluded that I was not someone worth spending time on. I do not remember anything else from the meeting. He might actually have given me some suggestions for how to proceed with my work. Yet, what I remember was the feeling that he lost interest already when I answered his first question.

The pivotal moment for my understanding of this question came when I was in the US for a conference. In the lobby during a coffee break I overheard the same question. This time it was uttered by a US-based female professor and at the other end of the question was a PhD student who apparently had an appointment with her. Before the student had had time to answer, the professor had added: “I guess what I’m asking is, whose ‘kid’ are you?” This utterance flashed me back in time to that previous encounter and finally explained to me that the question was a not so subtle probing into a fledgling scholar’s pedigree.

I guess I must be considered to having been simple-minded. I had, at the very least, been incapable of a sufficient degree of reflexivity. I had, after all, already then been well exposed to ideas of networks and relationships. I was well familiar with notions such as the “strength of weak ties” and “structural holes” already before entering into this professor’s office. I had moreover read “Science in action” and other actor-network classics. Hence, the idea that actors and agency can be understood in terms of networks and relations was far from strange to me, at least as analytical concepts. Yet, it is clear that I had not been able to make any such a connections when asked that simple question. I had not been able to put any of the network paraphernalia to work when I took in and answered the question.

I am probably not much smarter now. Yet, I do now have a clearer opinion on what I think about this specific question. The short version is that I think it is an inappropriate question and that it directs attention in the wrong direction.

I firmly believe that research is a social activity. All we do as scholars is relational. To be meaningful, our research needs to tie to previous work by others as well as be related to in subsequent contributions. In short, work need to be part of ongoing conversations. Research is a relational endeavour. Yet, and this is crucial, I do think that the question “Who do you work with?” is very poor way to evoke research as a relational endeavour. It is poor because it uses relations for establishing status and worth rather than to engage with ideas and how these might relate to the ideas of others. To put it bluntly: It performs what we could call an “aristocratic” form of a relational view on research, that is, a form where the worth of ideas and people are seen as determined by their pedigree.

The communal work we expect of one another

There must be a special hell for people who submit articles to journals, publish in them, but refuse to review for these journals.

Zeynep Arsel on Twitter, 18 Dec 2016

The above recent tweet by Zeynep Arsel, a colleague in Canada, resonated with me. Not only did the specific annoyance she articulated resonate with me. Her tweet further resonated with me in how it pointed to the precarious way in which communal work is allocated within academia. The tweet therefore points to the crucial aspect in academia of how some of the work is allocated and done for the benefit of collectives that are not defined by any single organisation or hierarchy. This is highly appealing in an idealist sense. Yet, as the tweet articulates, there might be instances where the allocation of tasks do not work as expected. The crux, moreover, is that there are no other sanctions than hoping that a special hell has been appropriately prepared to host those who appear to not play to maintain this precarious arrangement.

The tweet by Zeynep Arsel provides a great opportunity to reflect on the communal work we expect of one another in academia. Let me first think about the idea that we share a workload within collectives rather than only within organisations. Second, I would like think about annoyances that apparently can arise from this and what it might tell us about important aspects of the arrangement. I will stick to the topic of journal publishing in this post, but I think the theme of how we distribute and share communal work in academia is highly relevant other areas of academic practice as well. I recently wrote an editorial note in Valuation Studies that used the valuation practices entailed in scholarly journal publishing as an example of how different valuation practices may be interrelated to one another in intricate ways. Looking at the peer review process as work to be distributed within a collective provides another angle from which to examine scholarly publishing and academia more broadly.

It is, when you think of it, an interesting aspect of academia that we both recognise and accept the idea that we can hand one another work assignments without being in the same organisation or even knowing one another. When submitting a manuscript for peer review we expect editors to take on the tasks of assessing it, appointing reviewers and to furthermore ask them to take on the work of reading and assessing something they might not otherwise have chosen to read. Furthermore, this assignment of work in peer review would not be considered appropriate if it was done within a closed circuit of friends trading favours. In fact, such a closed setup for performing these tasks would raise suspicion that the review process indeed was inappropriately executed. Hence, we the distribution of the workload has in some sense to be done within a dispersed collective to really work. The absence of hierarchy or bilateral reciprocities are important for it to work. Yet, it also what makes it a weak arrangement if individuals do not play along.

I’ve heard musings from colleagues to the effect that one ought to contribute twice as many review assignments to the system as one submit manuscripts to it. The rationale here is that this would roughly make you participate in the review chore in proportion to how much you ask others to do it for your manuscripts. I think it is a reasonable rule of thumb, especially for more established scholars. The notion of “twice as many review assignments as submissions” is also nice as it makes clear how much work we are actually asking of one another for having a working academic system.  If we think of academia as dispersed work collectives, it is clear that it cannot operate without the sharing of the workload in some fashion.

On to the annoyances, annoyances related to how people participate (or not) in the communal work of journal publishing. What can be seen as irritating behaviour to the extent that we, in the spur of the moment, would like a special hell for certain people? Here are five suggestions in addition to the one caused by someone refusing to review for a journal despite publishing in it.

  • When you, as a reviewer, think that an editor has failed to pre-screen a manuscript before asking you to review it: “Why should I, as a reviewer, read this half-baked manuscript, if the editor clearly hasn’t bothered to give it a proper look?”
  • When you, as an author, you are expected to re-write your paper so that it becomes the paper the reviewer would have written: “Your job was to perform the task of assessing the manuscript, not to enroll and transform it so as to fit your own particular research agenda! The task to review is a service to the journal, editor, and author, not a service to your own ego!”
  • When you, again as an author, you are expected to align diverging reviewer comments without any guidance from the editor. “How should I be able to respond to all their contradictory concerns and simultaneously improve the manuscript? The editor needs to give me a break! – Or, at least, some indication of his or her own opinion on critical issues!”
  • When you, as an editor, are expected to be happy to consider a modestly re-edited version of a manuscript as a substantially revised version: “Are you seriously thinking that I should ask the reviewers to have a new look at this version? If you as an author is strapped for time, don’t you think the same is true for me and the reviewers?”
  • When you, as an author, editor or reviewer, you realise exactly how much a journal charges for a digital copy of an article you all have worked to develop for free: “Is there no limit to how much these guys think they can financially profit from our collegially performed work?”

Here we then already have the contours of more special hells. One special hell for editors failing to pre-screen manuscripts, maybe time-shared with editors not taking on the task of arbitrating between contradictory reviews. Another hell would be for reviewers hi-jacking the review assignments for their own agenda, and yet another one special hell would be for authors not responding to requests for substantive revisions of their manuscripts.

If anything, these annoyances point to precariousness with which this kind of work is distributed and performed within academia. The ease by which I could identify such annoyances suggest that there are not only expectations of everyone to participate and do our fair share. These annoyances suggest that there are expectations as to how we do go about doing the work so as to maintain these dispersed collectives.

These academic practices can easily be understood as expressions of a moral economy of journal peer review in academia (as per Lorraine Daston and, not the least, Robert Kohler). Yet, I’m not certain the most interesting question is what norms, if any, that holds it all together. Maybe, more interesting is to ask with what means we, as individuals and as collectives, can work to sustain and develop good practices. And no, I do not think measures that “incentivise” certain practices, like making a metric out of everyones review to submission ratio, would do the trick. Better then to let out steam when you see what you take as foul play. If we do not try to cultivate some beautiful ideals, who should?


A brief essay about quality in research

What is quality in research? What is good research? How can we now how to practice it and how to assess it? These questions are almost impossible to answer, and they are precisely for this reason all the more important to talk about.

I wrote a brief essay on the topic of research quality to be gathered together with similar essays written by my professorial colleagues at tema T. They were intended as conversation pieces for discussions about this both impossible and important topic. My own contribution was titled “On being part of a conversation: An essay to aid in talk about quality in research” and is available to download here.

On the distinction between disagreeing and practicing asshole discord

Criticism and disagreement are essential to keep scholarly endeavours alive. We need it to develop or revise our ideas and arguments. Yet, all forms of attack are not equal in aiding in that respect. When I look back at the times when I have been served the most unhelpful criticism, they always seem to have been developed precisely to hit me hard while not engaging with the idea or position I have aimed to articulate. It has been given as truly condescending treatments felt as intended to belittle rather than to engage.

While this still happens now and again, I remember in particular one such time when I was a PhD student. It was while attending an internal workshop where I was scheduled to receive comments from a commentator who was a full professor. The long and the short of his comment was that he ‘totally disagreed with everything in this paper.’ No help there on how to develop the argument, if you for the sake of argument momentarily accepted its basic premise. No suggestion to develop or revise the premise, provided it was broken. The problem with such critique is not primarily that it takes a conflicting position, since that is a necessary part of any disagreement. The problem is that it is articulated in a way that totally blocks any further conversation and learning. What else can you reply than stating ‘I’m sorry to hear that’ or the less polite remark that you are ‘impressed to encounter such a senior colleague that wears his ignorance with such pride.’ (At the time, I do not think I had the presence to reply at all.)

Asshole critique then, could thus be defined as the non-stick, non-engaging, comments aimed to denigrate and produce discord rather than disagreement. The only difference from the silent treatment is that it aims to maim. Isaac Newton has apparently stated that “tact is the art of making your point without making an enemy.” The opposite, I guess would be practicing asshole discord, which would be the art of denigrating without making a point. Disagreement is far too important to be soiled by such practices.

Reflections on TASP and the passing of academic judgement

I have long been fascinated by how much academic practice centres on the passing of judgement on students and peers. We review articles, and our articles get reviewed. We send in grant applications, and review those of others. We comment on each other’s work in seminars, and we make evaluative comments (sometimes in a low voice) about conference presentations.

Given how important this is for academic life, it is striking how unsystematic we talk about these things. There are scattered resources on topics like article reviewing available on the net, but I have found little systematic literature to help in developing one skill making and communicating academic judgements. I love Michelle Lamont’s *How Professors Think*, where she among other things displays the intricacies of passing judgment on grant applications. It is a rewarding read. Yet, one could wonder why there is not more talk and resources about the skills of passing judgment.

A while ago I came across three fascinating expert judgements regarding applicants for a professorship at a Swedish university (not Linkoping!). The reason these were fascinating was the markedly different styles in how they communicated their judgement of each applicant. One of the experts made extensive use of tables for presenting the achievements of the top candidates. In these we learnt the number of monographs and articles published by each candidate as well as the number of citations according to ISI and Google scholar.

Another expert was more condensed in his communication, but indicates in his introduction that the assessment has taken many sources into account (such as a ranking of journals for assessing the publications on the various candidates).

It was, however, the statement of the third expert that really caught my eye. She used a set of abbreviations for summarising her judgement of each candidate. These abbreviations were presented at the beginning of her statement and included: “TASP (there are some problems)” and “HOML (high on my list).” In all, five such abbreviations were defined.

One take on this would be that it is terrible with such a varied and unstandardized way to make and communicate such an important academic judgement as this one. Another one would be that it is precisely because it is of such importance that we as academics have to have quite some room in how we make these judgements. Maybe, then, the lack of more advice is all for the better in the end.