bioinformatics, genomes, biology etc. "I don't mean to sound angry and cynical, but I am, so that's how it comes across"

Month: August 2017

Let’s keep saying it, and say it louder: REVIEWERS ARE UNPAID

The arguments over peer review and whether we are obliged to do it generally fall on two sides – either it is or isn’t an implicit part of your job.   Stephen Heard falls into the former group, arguing that there are many things which are implicitly part of our jobs as academics, and which don’t make it into our job description.

I agree wholeheartedly with Stephen that peer-reviewing is not in my job description.  In fact it is nowhere to be seen.  It’s not in my employment contract either, nor has it ever been in any of my lists of annual objectives, after 16 years in academia.  In fact, I don’t think it’s ever been discussed, either in annual appraisal meetings or in my annual meetings with the institute director.  It doesn’t make it on to my CV either.

Here is a key point: I could never write another peer review for the rest of my career and my career would not suffer.  Not one bit.

It is not part of my job and I am not paid to do it.

(for the record, I do peer reviews! For free!)

In an increasingly pressurised environment where the only factors that influence my career progression are papers published and grants won; with over 6500 e-mails in my inbox which I have lost control of; and with a to-do list I have no chance of ever finishing, prioritisation is essential.  The key for any task is to be important enough to get into the “action” zone on my to do list.  Does peer review manage that?  Occasionally, but not often.

Would it get there more often if I was paid to do it?  Absolutely.  Why?  Because I have bills to pay and a small family and every little helps.  I imagine this is even more true for post-docs and early career researchers.  Why should they do something for free, often for profit-making organisations, when it doesn’t affect their career prospects one tiny bit?  The answer is simple: they shouldn’t.

A common argument is this: if everyone stopped peer reviewing, science would grind to a halt.  Well unfortunately that ignores reality.  If delivery drivers stopped driving, would there be no food on the shelves?  No.  Because we wouldn’t and couldn’t let that happen.  We’d find whatever incentive needed to be found, and make sure the drivers still drove.  The same is true of peer review.  If you are struggling to find people, there is a simple solution, one that is as old as money itself: pay them.

(note: I do many peer reviews and I will continue to do so; free.  However, I believe it is time to re-think incentives, and yes, it is time to pay people for peer reviews)

It’s a bit POINTLESS if you forget the POINTLESS in POINTLESS ADMIN

Rather predictably, a Guardian article railing against pointless admin has stimulated a response from the university admin community.   Unfortunately, the response kind of misses the point – academics are annoyed at POINTLESS ADMIN, not at administrators in general (though the two are not entirely unrelated).

Here’s the thing – there is both pointless and essential administration, and at the same time, there are both excellent and poor administrators.  An attack on pointless admin is not an attack on good administrators.   We all can recognise groups of excellent administrators without whom the place would fall apart.  No-one is attacking them.

So what is pointless admin?  There is so much of it I don’t know where to start.  Perhaps the best example is the recording of academic outputs.  My University insists I put them in PURE; Wellcome Trust insist I have an ORCID account; and BBSRC insist I use ResearchFish.  You can accept the motivation for this whilst at the same time recognising that it is genuinely pointless replication of effort.  Academics are angry not because this happens once or twice, but because it happens all the time and it is increasing in frequency.

So what makes a good administrator?  Well, I have always said “A bad administrator reminds you to do something, a good administrator does it for you”.  There are caveats, but it’s a good starting point.  A quick guide for administrators might be something like this: “Is this a tick-box exercise?  Can you tick the box?  Then tick the box.  Please.  Thank you!   Does it really need the academic’s input?  Can they send bullet points and you do the rest?  Let’s do that then!  Otherwise are there any parts you can fill in?  I’d love for you to fill them in!  Is it possible to visit and not send yet another e-mail?  That would be awesome.  You can ask if a follow-up email would help and then send one afterwards.  Is there a possibility that one system/form can be filled in and then the same information copied to other systems/forms?  Can you do the copying?  Awesome!  And, as an aside, can we maybe have less systems/forms if they contain the same information?  Amazing”.

The obvious response to all of this is “why should the admins have to do all of that?  You arrogant ****!  Do your own admin!”.  This misses an unfortunate point – we are drowning.  If academia was a near-death experience, then academics are 200 yards off shore, in a rip-tide, barely breathing with our arms in the air, waving for help.   We need help.  Our job is to teach, to publish papers and to win research grants, research grants with overheads, all of which go some way to sustaining the very institution we all work for.   Every minute doing admin is a minute we are not doing the thing that keeps the lights on.

Please.  Help us.  Remove POINTLESS ADMIN.  And be a good administrator, not a bad one.

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