Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Service to the profession

In the academic world, there is a lot of things you are supposed to do for free. I'd like to see a business consultant who is content with the wording: “We offer a modest honorarium which is recognition rather than proper compensation for your work”. I am afraid they would use a language I am not prepared to reproduce in public. But we academics are expected to do tons of work for a modest honorarium that does not even constitute a proper day payment. Believe me, I have made careful calculations. 

Let us say that I am asked to write a review for promotion (I have several of these on my desk right now). They usually come with a pile of publications that you are expected to read and judge. Even if it is a colleague whose work you know well you still want to refresh some things, and the amount of stuff colleagues publish these days is intimidating. Say on the average you need to re-read a book, read a newly published book and a dozen articles, taking notes that will then have to be turned into a coherent scholarly evaluation. You need at least to pretend that you are taking it seriously. A promotion review is a very special genre: it is not so much about what you think of this research but how it can be weighted against vague academic criteria. One of these is: Would this person be promoted in your institution? This is a weird question. Promotion criteria are so different. I once reviewed someone being promoted to full professor who didn't have a single book publication. In my institution this person wouldn't have been considered for assistant professor. Anyway, it certainly takes a couple of days to read all these mountains of publications and another day to write the review, where you also have to take into consideration all facts in the person's CV of which you probably know nothing, but can guess at depth and breadth of knowledge and engagement. Three days at least of hard work, and for that, a modest honorarium.

A modest honorarium is also occasionally, although far from always, offered for reviewing a research proposal. I am sitting right now with one, and I know that I am deciding how a dozen of people will spend the next three years of their professional life. I need to argue well. I need to read through the proposal, 30 pages, several times and choose succinct wording for my verdict. It will take me at least a couple of days. For a modest honorarium.

There are, however, tasks where there isn't even that. Reader reviews for articles submitted to journals. They are usually 6-8,000 words. You cannot simply browse through the text since you have to write a solid evaluation that may boost or ruin someone's career. I typically spend more time on articles that are completely unpublishable. With a brilliant article, you can just say it's brilliant and add a couple of minor comments. With a poor article you want – at least I want – to explain to the author why it is poor. A good reader review may be helpful even if the article is rejected, and it happens that the author rewrites and resubmits and it turns out quite good. I have just reviewed a couple of unpublishable submissions, spending at least two days on each.

I have now spent two weeks of my precious time working for nothing or for a token fee, when I should be writing my own book. Why am I doing this? Why are we all doing this? Well, in guidelines for promotion, it is called service to the profession. We serve each other, and we do it for nothing or for the good cause, and if I don't do it, then how would I expect that someone does it for me or my colleagues or my students? It is never reciprocal, but someone wrote my promotion reviews, someone evaluated my grant proposals, someone gave me feedback on my journal submissions and book proposals. I am just paying back.

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