"What I cannot create, I do not understand." – R. Feynman
Jonas Kubilius

The academic community and me

My colleague Lee de-Wit, after some doubt, has recently signed The Cost of Knowledge pledge not to publish, review, or do any editorial work for Elsevier journals stating that he did not “want a permanent position in science if we are collectively unable to improve the way we publish”.

Now that is a full acknowledgement that scientific community is us. We have the right and the obligation to drive it wherever we see it fit. This realization is empowering. For example, when people debate the benefits of open access and how it should be implemented, I see a lack of clearly defined values. Is science supposed to be open? Yes. So that should be the starting point of any debate. Details like who is responsible for peer review and the value of editorial work are secondary, but if we start from them, we lose the oversight of where we want to get. And we get lost.

This example is a good illustration of what science has become (or always been?) in practice. Many PhD students start with a naive belief that science is committed to bringing the light to the world. It is, as long as it leads to the next publication and more funding. It is, but it works like a competition. Hot topics win. Social butterflies win. There is ample of politics, though no doubt you’ve got to be sharp and maintain high standards in order to win.

Just like most communities, science has long become an enterprise with formal rules and exclusivity. Merit is weighted in terms of the number of publications and their impact factors rather than your potential. In some ways, it makes sense. It is not possible to chat with every applicant to determine their merit, and even if it was, is this subjective impression more informative on your future success than your past achievements?

PhD students quickly come to realize this ruthless reality of an academic career. Some adapt. Some quit.

I neither want to adapt nor quit. Rather, I question what a success means. Many publications? Publications in a top journal? Funding money? An ability to think clearly? Lifelong impact on your students?

We have to state our values clearly before measuring them. To me, the shear joy understanding and building things is the driving force and meaning. I also want to live conveniently, so I select problems that matter, such as understanding human vision, and educate people so that they become more like me and improve my (our) life quality.

There is science as the means of understanding things, and there is a community that defines its activities, funding, trends etc. The former is objectively defined. The latter, however, can operate in many ways. Right now, we believe in state funding, lifelong positions at universities, peer review, publish-or-perish and closed notebook research, for example. The belief in commercial publishing is starting to crack though.

Thus the question is not how to flourish in such community but rather whether I want to support and contribute to it. I am a free man; I can choose where to direct my talents. If this community cannot accept that sharing ideas is good, if people cannot get together to build something better than Google Scholar, well, that is not the community that I should seek to be accepted by. I have an average of a twelve hours working day – no lunch break, minimal Facebook – at least five days a week. At the end of the day my eyes are so tired I can barely see three meters away, I frequently get home with headaches, and I lose on my social life. But make no mistake, this is not a sacrifice in order to secure my next position – I merely love what I do.

It will sound arrogant but if I fail to get a decent postdoc, the loss is all theirs.