Science not competition

People like to talk about crises rather often, so I’m not going to call what we now experience “the crisis of academia”. Instead I’ll mention just a handful of symptoms and the reader can pick his or her own term for what is going on. All the following points are admittedly very vague and could be (or better, have been) inspected, supported and opposed in much greater detail; also, field-specific differences are neglected. Even so, I believe there is a whole to notice, be it from a particular perspective, and to draw conclusions from. In this post, the term “science” is used very broadly, also to include humanities.

  • Ever-growing numbers of people, motivated by scholarly teaching, project their career ambitions in the Euro-American academic world. The academic budgets, in general, are not growing. As a result, competition is running out of control.
  • For any postgraduate academic position that comes with at least remotely decent funding, hundreds of applications are apparently standard nowadays.
  • It has become more or less a rule that a young scientist spends a couple of project intervals in various places around the world, each spanning over a couple of years, before a lucky few find a tenured position. (Often this mobility is phrased as an actual intellectual benefit, of which I am more or less skeptical, personally preferring life in a community in whose life I can genuinely participate, not being merely a guest. In my understanding such engagement is an important part of being a decent person, and at least for the disciplines I know, I doubt one can be a decent scientist without being that.) For many academic pairs (and of course for a scientist academia is often the primary milieu for seeking a life partner) the above involves virtual impossibility of coordinating their life and career so that it can be spent in one chosen place by both persons.
  • Severe distortions introduced into science by current publication mechanisms are well-known. Despite loud warnings, little seems to be happening. Novel results go on being preferred and hunted for in tricky ways, because behavior is not likely to change when the incentives don’t. (In my opinion it is merely an illusion that peer review, even very thorough, can reveal all inadequacies in the work of an author whose motivations are systematically crooked.)
  • Open Access does not permeate as we optimistically thought it would. Most of the publicly funded scientific production, in most of the influential publication venues, is still officially hidden behind paywalls. After two decades of the Internet, we still cannot freely access the scientific results we fund with our taxes. The broad access offered by SciHub is illegal – and bound to stay this way, unless we agree that what should be illegal in the first place is for a scientist to give up copyright to publicly funded work in exchange for the prestige associated with publishing in a particular journal. Given SciHub, a massive change from Reader Pay to Author Pay publishing model may be inevitable. However, the position of commercial publishers and the extent to which scientists depend on the prestigious brands owned by these publishers leave little hope that the resulting model will be a reasonable one.
  • Vast majority of scientific papers nowadays do not get read by anyone except at best the circle of people whose careers depend on producing papers on the same problematic. (Again one could argue this is a natural state of science, but I would instead ask the radical question whether what we are left with under such conditions is science at all. At least, science as a social effort aimed at gaining knowledge in the interest of our common welfare, in the widest sense. The open-hearted reader can perhaps think of esoteric fields in which such a definition of science is very hard to apply.)

Provided that you agree there is a lot to cure in the current academic science, there is only one cure I can see. The other would be an enormous increase in finance allotted to science by the public. As we are talking hundreds of percents, amounts that would ensure a reasonable income for at least a majority of those who have been led to seek their future in academic science, we can consider it a given that this is not going to happen.

My only cure is a simple and very painful one: do not compete. Refuse all sorts of competition in science that bear on how the limited budgets are split. Knowing that true science has never ceased to be a cooperative effort, and knowing where excessive competition leads, refuse to compete with your peers and colleagues. Find the dignity not to struggle for sources the public is not willing to provide you with; in particular not against someone who you think is every bit as good a scientist as yourself.

To be clear, in most if not all cases this involves leaving academic science. In case you happen to enjoy some sort of institutional funding, not competing for extra grants is not enough. Permanent positions are positions in the competition just as well: peers against peers, the old against the young. (And the young are beginning to note, mind you.)

Leaving academic science, surely within the philosophically and language-oriented fields I am personally acquainted with, is not the same as leaving science altogether. On the contrary, my idealistic claim would be that what a scientist leaves when leaving academic positions might not have been science at all: for real science is not so easy to give up. Without our won share of public budget, we will certainly produce much less in quantity. But maybe that is the only science that actually counts in the end.

I dare claim that competition for drastically restricted sources is the root of all major troubles we experience with academic publishing. Once we deprive publications of their career implications, all current incentives for publishing against the interests of science itself disappear as if by magic. There is no more need to speed up publishing before results are ripe, or to publish pieces with no content disguised as content, or to clash with our peers in the unfriendly setting of anonymous peer review, or to publish in venues that in 2017 still do not make their scientific content universally available at a single mouse-click. One could object that depriving publications of their implications for careers does not necessarily involve canceling those careers. But I am skeptical of this, since it was precisely the preconditioning of careers by publications that was devised in order to guarantee the fair and objective management of careers under the conditions of increased competition.

The commitment of not competing in science is perhaps naive, but can be very real. Taking advantage of the fact that I have neither children to feed nor a mortgage to pay up, I decided to give up my (admittedly rather early-stage) academic career. Give up academic science and competition, not science altogether. For I believe science and academia have now got further away from each other than ever before. And neither in this belief, nor in the commitment am I alone. In a sense, me and my companions have been doing you, the other academics, a tiny, infinitesimal amount of good by not competing for the same funding you do. It will be great if you can pass this good forward in whichever way is available to you.

2 komentáře u „Science not competition

  1. Could you expand a bit on how you keep being a scientist outside academia? Does it mean applied research in corporate r&d or doing research in your free time. I also decided to quit academia, partly for the same reason. My way of staying in science is to earn enough money outside academia to support my family and do research / teaching virtually for free as a part-time job. The downside is I wil never be fully focused to my field.

  2. Hi Martin, surely it’s not an easy way to go and involves compromises that we can only hope now are more honest than the academic ones. I myself had been lucky to start working in a field in which science appeared compatible with commerce to some extent (history and genealogy, the latter being the commercial part). But the balance is quite fragile (I may give this up in half a year) and my way is definitely no general formula, if only because there is little connection with the original field (philosophy). Another way I can imagine really is making money where they are and use them to do part-time science privately. It must take a lot of devotion and I guess there is a sense of not keeping pace with the field. But the question is whether the *academic* field is still yours then, actually. In my personal experience I keep being surprised by how little sense some scientific (and philosophical) problems make once you don’t get paid for solving them (put very bluntly indeed).

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