Who are you?

Nobody mentions this when you start out as an academic but it soon becomes obvious that at the core of what we do is the ever-present notion of rejection. I’m no fonder of being told that I don’t measure up to somebody else’s definition of outstanding, or original than anybody else. But, over the past few years I have discovered that punctuating the successes of my ‘career’ are the frequent failures – some of which I’ve taken more personally than others.
Most academics are under either a moral or quasi-legal obligation to publish. In the UK, the REF (Research Excellence Framework) has just finished its collection stage. Assessing the ‘excellence’ of research is a laudable goal, if only we knew what excellence was. Many academics will find their research marginalised by their institution as they (the institutions) attempt to maximise their chances of including only research which is deemed to be of an ‘international’ standard.
To be excluded from the REF feels like a personal judgement on the quality of your work. It is, of course, no such thing. It would be if the entire exercise was not dominated by the desire of institutions to maximise their income and their prestige. The REF is more akin to a game in which the academics of any particular institution are the equivalent of squad players, whose role may be small, but whose significance to the entire enterprise is vital.
It is probably true to say that whilst the volume of research has risen, the quality has stayed much the same. After all, you probably don’t produce excellence in an environment where fragile ego’s can be sacrificed to the greater good. It is actually one of the few perks of my own job that inclusion in the REF is not a pre-condition of my role. My own research, such as it is, has to fit in on the margins of the rest of the work that I do.
It is, of course, not only published work that matters. Though, in truth, it still matters far more than it ought. Academics are also under increasing pressure to bring in external funding. This means putting in grant applications, often to government bodies or charities.
Like peer reviewing in journals, grant applications are judged mostly by anonymous panels. On the whole, reviewers are fair and likely to offer good advice if turning you down. Unlike journals, chances of a quick re-application are less likely as grants tend to be on a calendar cycle. Nonetheless, very often reviewers comments, hiding behind anonymity, can verge on the personal. And, it is hard not to take them in a similar way.
I have often wondered why reviewers comments need to be anonymous. If papers and grant applications are being judged against pre-determined criteria why can’t the feedback be open and honest? Why the need to hide behind anonymity? Often, it isn’t difficult to work out the reviewers by the ‘seminal’ papers they list that you’ve failed to acknowledge. By a strange coincidence these are all by the same author (in one scathing review I received a paper that I had “failed to acknowledge” was actually published after the paper being reviewed had been submitted!)
As if our egos did not have to take a bruising elsewhere promotions are also decided by panels whose objectivity is not always clear. In many institutions peer review of promotion cases is common-place. After all, who better to judge your merits than those you work closely with? Who better to judge your merits than those you may have had petty arguments with? Who better to judge your merits than those who may be harbouring vindictive feelings toward you based on some past, minor indiscretion to which they took exception?
Peer review of our work can be conducted anonymously to encourage honesty among panels who may otherwise feel constrained in their opinions. This is the oft-repeated rationale for treating such meetings as confidential and therefore ensuring that opinions cannot be challenged.
I tend to believe that, on the whole, academics are honest and moral individuals who are capable of putting personal feelings to one side and judge cases, even from people they dislike, on the evidence. I also believe that academics are capable of being petty, vindictive and egoistic, and more likely to be so if they are assured of anonymity.
My own view is that I do not say anything in a review or at a review or promotions panel that I would not say to a person’s face. I see no reason when I am part of the peer review process to deny people the ‘right’ to know who I am. Though, for obvious reasons, that is not always possible because the rules of peer review do not allow it. I would argue that anonymous review is only necessary if the reviewers do not want to be held accountable for what they say.
As transparency is unlikely to become the norm anytime soon, my advice for younger academics is to publish and be damned. Or, try to publish and don’t take the criticisms personally. If they can’t say it to your face they aren’t worth losing sleep over.


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