Almost every day, the science system is shaken by homemade scandals: bullying by professors, sexual harassment, glossed over publication lists, mass publishing in predatory journals, and even brazen falsifications of results (just to name a few examples). These news have shaped and will continue to shape the discourse in society about science and academia in the coming years, creating a less than favourable image of academia for members of the public, politicians and policy-makers. Academia’s first goal, creating knowledge for the common good, will recede from the public’s view and fall by the wayside.
In fact, the scandals that hit the headlines are only the tip of the iceberg. In everyday academic business, there are a lot of smaller poisons. We believe that many colleagues know of situations in which negative behavior poisoned everyday academic life: for example, early-career researchers face the problem of professors requesting to be added to the author list, even if they only wrote three sentences, if any at all. Many people understandably prefer to publish the results, to share the findings, and accept implicitly that these feudal publishing strategies will help progress their careers. This is just one example of the versatile academic poisons that corrode our science system bit by bit on a daily basis.
Where do these academic poisons come from?
In our view, many of these poisons can be traced back to hypercompetition in academia with its inherent quantification. Resources in the scientific world are strictly limited and our science system is growing much faster than the financing underpinning it, creating a breeding ground for toxic behavior.
Academic hypercompetition brings forth strange fruit because it is not coupled with proportional knowledge gain. As many studies show, this competition generates a high pressure to adapt and produces little autonomous research. Instead of real centres of excellence, ‘predatory’ academic groups emerge, focused mainly on how to develop effective fund-grabbing tactics. This leads to an erosion of many existing good practices.
A little less conversation, a little more action please!
This website, “Academic Detox”, joins a growing but steady trend of pushing back on toxic academic culture, by academics themselves. Colleagues writing in the International Journal for Critical Geographers sign up to the notion of ‘slow scholarship’ in a pushback to the hyperproductive university. Others, at the University of Aberdeen attempted to “reclaim their university” calling on their management for a university serving the academic community rather than business interests. There are many more examples like these.
In our own, interdisciplinary “Academic Detox” we wanted to collect good practices to fight the various poisonous behaviours in academia as we believe that they may damage the system beyond repair. On this website we are currently collecting good practices and actions to fight poisoned practices in academia. A large share of the weight in detoxing science will have to rest on the shoulders of more senior colleagues being in defacto more authoritative and less precarious positions than more junior colleagues – and in fact acknowledging the precarity and the associated existential fears of more junior colleagues might be a good place to start. Toxic authoritative structures characterised by seniority and patriarchy can and have been criticised and attacked by those more precariously employed, yet in order to overturn such structures established scholars will have to act much more responsibly.
Nevertheless, for us, it is important to also offer actions for everyone to fight those toxics behaviors. Here are some ideas and examples. The computer scientist Amy Ko recently published a blog post on how to de-quantify the short biographies academics typically put on their websites, CVs and grant proposals. The goal of this is to emphasis quality of academic output, over quantity, and also give weight to activities such as teaching and outreach. Nolas and Varvantakis started a new journal to detox the reviewing system (amongst other things) and engage authors and reviewers in a deep and productive conversation.
But also within established journals detoxing the review process is possible. We should stop calling for flat rejections, but rather give constructive advice to the authors how a paper could be made acceptable wherever possible. With regards to contracts, senior colleagues should actively disengage from the growing malpractice of awarding short-term contracts purely out of habit or convenience: why not, instead, hand out contracts for as long a period as possible, according to the available funding? Further small steps are abandoning quantitative metrics when evaluating scientists for academic positions or awards, and raising our voices when others do.
To sum up!
We should fill Wilhelm von Humboldt’s ideal of a holistic science with life again. The brutal economic conditions in science will suffocate academic freedom sooner or later. We need to take action and operationalise many of the antidotes. If you are interested in joining the movement, please get in touch with Johannes Schöning. We have an email list to share thoughts as well as to propose antidotes , which we collect on this website! This manifesto was first published on Times Higher Education. It was last updated on October 27th 2019.
Johannes Schöning, University of Bremen, Germany
Sophia Hoffmann, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Germany
Melissa Nolas, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK
Christos Varvantakis, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK
Hendrik Weimer, Leibniz University Hannover, Germany