Friday, November 22, 2013

The Craven Greed Department: another installment

A while ago we posted on some circulars we'd been sent advertising companies who would help write grants for NIH and grantsmanship the system.  This was preying on faculty who felt fearful for their careers if they didn't haul in the bucks.  Gaming the system may be part of life (we teach our students how to do it, after all), and it's very crass if not dishonorable.  But in the past, universities had offices or faculty members had colleagues who would help them.

Companies cashing in prey like vultures, however.  Where do the fees come from?  It would be immoral to spend money on this year's grant to get help writing next year's, because grant funds are supposed to strictly to the proposed research.  Departments are very unlikely to shell out for their faculty members to buy the service, and if they do it may come from grant overhead, and again would be immoral if not illegal.

Another installment, this time by a once-reputable company
Today, everyone subscribing to Nature got, stuck onto the issue's cover, an advertisement for Macmillan Science Communications (MSC--Macmillan publishes Nature), selling services to help you write your next paper and target it to journals you tell them you want to hit.

As the snapshot from their web site shows, the minimal service costs $625 for a brief bit of reaction from MSC, and $1250 for actual help on a paper, if the paper is less than 1500 words (a length that, by the way, is basically a comment, not generally a real paper); for longer papers, of course, the tab goes up by an unspecified amount.

You might think of these as bargain charges, and of course one would expect Macmillan to be livid at our portrayal of their noble cause.  But we can remember how, in the good old days, your colleague down the hall would help. If English was not your native language, you would get help with your grammar and the like.  We ourselves have done that countless times (if only we'd known we should have been charging such fees!).

OK, you're in a hyper-competitive system and you're scared that you'll not get tenure if you don't get your paper in the highest impact journal, so you'll pay through the proverbial proboscis.  We wonder if the noble MSC ever will tell you your paper is too trivial or minimal to make it to a good journal, or if they'll just charge you and wish you good luck. They don't, we presume, guarantee acceptance.

So who pays?  Like the grant-writing scams of a couple of years ago, will it be from your current grant?  Will your Chair provide the funds?  How many papers' worth will be covered?  Are you too embarrassed to ask for help, lest your weaknesses be exposed?  Or, is it more likely that MSC is knowingly preying on your fears and knowing that you'll pay it out of pocket?

One might argue that MSC is just tapping into, and exploiting in a benign sense, a ready market, and that they are in that sense doing a service, even a good thing.  If so, it's a very sorry reflection of the state of affairs.  Why, even if MSC is a crassly capitalistic company, this is downright Marxian! How could that be, you ask?

We churn out more labor--in this case, PhDs--than we can employ, and let them linger on the edge until or if we need them.  We churn them out because they generate the work of our labs and enable us to bring in the profits (grants, patents) in which they really don't share.  That they are unemployed doesn't mean we don't keep training more, because of the industrial growth-is-everything model.  So some of these urchins have to find other jobs, and in this case it appears that some find jobs with MSC, preying on the insecurities and fears of those who do cling onto or hope to get jobs in the system, by promising that if they (the surplus scientists) edit the terrorized workers' work the latter can hope to keep their jobs.  Of course, given that we are training surplus labor, that's an illusion.  So we think it's a cruelty in many ways to exploit this situation.

The idea that anything any greedy person wants to gouge others for is all right is a symptom, we think, of an honorless society.  If getting cribs to do your paper-writing, or (we've posted on this before) to 'help' you get grants, is doing a needed service, or a service that the trade will bear, is a legitimate thing to do, then it shows how sorry our society's behavior is to provide the clientel in the first place.

Faculty members should not be hired as sales agents, but for their insight and talents.  Faculty  members should by that stage be able to write papers and grants, to know where to target them and how to write them.  One should not need cribs and commercial services to do what one has presumably been prepared to do while in graduate school and postdoctoral positions.  But if for proper reasons, such as English-language issues or lack of enough experience, they can't do their own work, then their colleagues should not be unwilling to help.


Manoj Samanta said...

As I explained many times in our blog, government funding is the disease and everything you complain about are the symptoms of the disease.

1. "Too many PhD students" - because government gives more money to train PhDs than the society needs. If government took over sugar production, we would have our swimming pools full of sugar.

2. "Faculty members should not be hired as sales agents, but for their insight and talents." - Doing sales and marketing is what gets them grant, because once again, centralized grant panels do get affected by sales and marketing due to its government-controlled selection.

3. "MSC offers to write papers" - In our days, nobody other than the author could write a paper, because it was so technically rich. Also, being truthful was rewarded. Now the papers need to have inflated title+abstract to go anywhere. Once again, the reason is centralized government grant process.

I can go on with 4, 5, 6...

Ken Weiss said...

You need not go on! The current situation is clear. Any of us who work with graduate students, post-docs, junior faculty see the pattern. Senior faculty generally have more power and sources of assistance.

But this is yet another symptom of a society devoted to competition rather than quality of life.

John R. Vokey said...

So, how do we ratchet this back?

Ken Weiss said...

As someone who saw the more or less effective protest movement in the US VietNam era, it takes grass-roots, large-scale, emotionally committed activism.

Right now we as a society, if not the government explicitly, are following Juvenal, I think: we pacify our masses with bread and circuses.

Even massive student debt and the apparent fact that universities profit from it (not just by getting the tuition but also a cut of the interest) and so on, and the loss of the social contract to support education....well, that has led to Corporate U.

I don't know what social theory would be more apt a description of the fact that we knowingly, and selfishly, over populate with trained people, making them compete fervently for the decent jobs. They put up with it, and grind away at the grist-mill, without much more than an occasional peep of protest. It is apparently just how things are, in their experience. They don't know that even in the USA the 'business model' and relentless competition wasn't everything.

In history (I'm no historian, I confess) it seems that major social change often has required mass action from the grass roots.

Since I have had tenure for decades, I've been able fortunate to be able to float on top of the problem....

What do you think?

Manoj Samanta said...

There is no ratcheting back. The current system is going to collapse. Only thing good people can do is to build a substitute that continues the good work, while the old system suffers its dying pain. Sadly, the substitute has to be much smaller, because society cannot bear too many elites.

John R. Vokey said...

I was one of the lucky ones, catching the last of the wave of the expansion of universities of the 1960s and 1970s. I was hired in 1982, and everything shut down after that, and really has not opened since. But that was also the tail-end of the post-war egalitarian expansion: governments, unions, society generally were focussed on the public good: education, for example, was seen as a public, not personal, good, and it was almost entirely funded by the state.

Then, we had Reagan, Thatcher, and over 30 years of stupid, right-wing cant world-wide that has completely poisoned the media and social discourse. This is NOT a problem of the academy alone, but a much broader social problem. But it doesn't help that the academy has been complicit in accepting when not promoting the same right-wing model.

Ken Weiss said...

John's and Maoj's views express some important aspects of the situation. Each generation's elders (such as me, and John) tend to complain about how the past was better than the present. Well, the past was better for us, but of course it was what we grew up with and into.

The current generation will have to deal with what it has to deal with. Whether it's as catastrophic or dire as it seems is something only time will tell.

Science and higher education have become more widely relevant, and less only for the elite. It's a demographic change with many good things about it. Job security and benefits are becoming less, in academe as in the private sector--tenure may be shrinking, in parallel with unions and the idea that you have one employer your whole life.

We spend our time staring at screens rather than in other kinds of social activity. It's more passive, but it's another way of interacting.

Exploitation of those in need isn't new either, even now in science (the reason we wrote our post).

Eventually, more unity will drift back into society, hopefully not in the usual way--in response to a dire crisis.