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I am a graduate student in some subdiscipline of mathematics and have had the following impressions. One of the senior faculty members (a professor) at my (not too famous) university mentioned, when talking about famous people in the field (high positions at top universities, etc.), that it is very important "not to rub such a person the wrong way". Another senior faculty member mentioned that it is very important to be political when citing the same type of people and giving very much credit and in particular that one does not criticize errors in their papers (in one case the error was anyway corrected in a subsequent paper).

To what extent are they right in saying/doing this? Can such a person ruin your reputation/career? Are there examples of this?

I understand that the answer to these questions are in principle "yes", but would like to have an elaboration if possible and also some examples of this.

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    Famous people are unlikely to read your papers. However, in some cases, it is a network built around such people (or even a network not built around famous people) that can cause some serious damage. I will leave my comment at that. Feb 3, 2023 at 22:48
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    What part of the world are you in? I suspect this varies geographically as well as by field.
    – cag51
    Feb 4, 2023 at 2:14
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    I find the ''superstars'' are not dangerous, it's usually the ''mediocre, not really superstars and are bitter about it''-type of people that are most ruthless and dangerous for young researchers, especially if you don't yet have a track record of publications and they decide to try and get rid of you.
    – Tom
    Feb 4, 2023 at 16:16
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    @Vertex bitter researchers can make life difficult, directly or indirectly. They might make biased recommendations or assignments. I have met such people, who for instance would never allow students/postdocs other than their own to participate in organizing conferences or meeting with guests, who would go out of their way to advocate against scholarships to certain students, and who expect total fealty from their own students. Feb 4, 2023 at 16:45
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    All “famous” researchers I have met personally have been gracious and very patient, although I know of examples of famous people (with whom I’ve never interacted) with anger management issues. Feb 4, 2023 at 16:48

6 Answers 6

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My experience (in North America) in dealing with superstars is that most of them do not care about being cited: they know where they are in the queue, others know where they are in the queue, and citations do not matter to them.

(There are exceptions of real obnoxious superstars but they are thankfully rare.)

The more toxic people tend to be amongst the wannabes below superstar level. Some of these guys feel their contribution are unfairly ignored or not recognized properly. These are a dangerous tribe and they will not hesitate to step on others to climb up the ladder of success.

I do not think it is more likely that famous rather than just regular obnoxious people will actively seek to ruin the career of random persons. It’s simpler for most brilliant people to just ignore the plebs.

This being said, I would double and even triple check before pointing an error in any paper: I have found over the years that in most cases it was I who did not understand the work properly (which can be quite poorly written). It is unlikely that these errors are serious as the work of such superstars is quickly read by others and such mistakes quickly corrected.

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    "wannabes" - or worse, Lion King-style hyenas who would zealously defend the current "King" to maintain their subpar status quo just because any alternative is filled with uncertainty. They may not even try to get on the "King's" good side, just be worried to death that if even kings are not invincible, what good is there in this perilous and uncertain world?
    – Lodinn
    Feb 4, 2023 at 1:55
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    the work of such superstars is quickly read by others and such mistakes quickly corrected - Well, ideally. Unfortunately there are many cases where either there are known issues that aren't corrected in the literature for a long time, or there may be gaps, and it's not clear how serious the gaps are.
    – Kimball
    Feb 4, 2023 at 12:18
  • Your last sentence is crucial. Much more common than not understanding the work itself, is not understanding what kind of errors are considered “serious” vs “trivial” by people experienced in the field.
    – PLL
    Feb 5, 2023 at 11:33
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Be charitable to all, without special dispensations for people of high status

It is inherently difficult to predict the future behaviour of other people you don't know, but the mere fact that there is a reputation that is spread around warning you against valid criticism of the work of others is itself worrying; is an indicator of unheathy behaviour and scientific corruption in academia. Irrespective of whether vindictive behaviour responding to a correction is likely to occur, I don't think it is healthy to approach academic work in a political manner where you formulate your own behaviour in order to accommodate the presumed or suspected vindictiveness of others, based on their power and status in the profession. If others are not going to act vindictively then there is nothing to worry about, and if they are going to act vindictively then you should be bold and fearless and proceed in the spirit of open scientific criticism anyway. Therefore, I would counsel against any attempt to speculate on or predict vindictive behaviour by high-level academics; just be faithful to the spirit of scientific inquiry and professional courtesy and take these as your guide for behaviour.

Academics with high status should not get any special treatment here, but obviously you ought to show some appreciation for the fact that they have made valuable contributions to the discipline and put any errors in perspective. You should also approach critiques of the work of any author with a level of good faith and charitableness appropriate to professional research. People who do lots of work in a difficult field are going to make lots of errors in the course of doing this work, and occasionally these errors will sneak past discerning eyes, including in the peer review process. If you find errors in the works of other mathematicians (whether they are famous or not) you should correct those errors as appropriate and proceed using the corrected version of their work. Typically if you are citing a work and using it but correcting an error then you would have a footnote noting the error and the correction but you would not make a big fuss about it or be harsh on the author --- just make the appropriate correction, make it clear to your reader, and proceed on the basis of the corrected work. Undertake your corrections in a calm and non-judgmental way that shows respect for the fact that the totality of the work of these other authors has positive value and merit despite occasional mistakes. You should exhibit this level of appreciation and charity when dealing with errors from any of the practitioners in your profession, irrespective of their status.

As to the question of the power of famous academics, they have quite a bit of power and discretion over others within academia (e.g., decision-making ability over hiring, promotions, reviewing, etc.), but this power is curtailed by ordinary protections for other workers, the tenure system, etc. A vindictive professor might be able to exact punishment on a lower academic for a perceived slight, but it would harm their own reputation if it became known that they act in such an unprofessional way.

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I may not answer for Mathematics specifically, but I would be generally less pessimistic about the politics in academia. But there are many layers to peel here.

First, "do not try to challenge famous researchers" may be a useful heuristic. They became famous for a reason, and lots and lots of resources were spent following in their footsteps. Challenging some of their results without a strong attack is unwise, and going after foundational principles of any field will cause an instinctive rejection by the community, as it have many times in the past. On the other hand, no guts, no glory - if you DO have a strong attack on a problem, it may very well be the road to fame. Planning research around having a breakthrough is not particularly feasible, however.

Second, in some parts of the world, challenging the authority has broader cultural implications. This is far from universal, but (allegedly) there are places where it may well be a career suicide.

Third, if the previous point does not apply, I would call "giving very much credit" either a poorly worded or poorly understood (either by you or a person who stated that) approach. See, "famous authors were all wrong" implies that anything based on that paper is invalid, and that stance loses immediately. Instead, try to reconcile the development of the field with your newfound results. It may not be that important to pay tribute to specific people, but failure to recognize the value of a significant fraction of research done in the subfield would easily lead to the paper being rejected, ignored, or even labeled as crankery. Starting off by antagonizing the very community receiving this work is very counter-productive, and not being sufficiently specific with the critique may, unfortunately, trigger certain heuristics in fellow researchers that will place your paper straight into the trash bin. "Giving credit" may have the same presentation as "reconciling the differences", but a very different driving force behind it. The latter tries to be impartial even towards oneself, the former makes scientific merit highly subjective and, plainly speaking, feels wrong.

And finally, there is certainly a component of having to work around personalities in academia. The higher up the ladder, the more political it gets. In that sense, yes, famous people wield a lot of power, and if you try to get a big project going, you have to consider who will be in the committee, what they believe has merit and what does not. There are not enough funds going around to pursue every venue meaningfully, and attempts to divert more resources than just venture capital from what seems to be working great otherwise would not be received favorably. Convincing other researchers that what you are working on is important is a substantial part of being an academic, and this is especially significant in mathematics as this acute observation by Alexander Woo attests.

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I like to think of the formal "powers" any senior person in a field might have and how that could enable them to harm another researcher. I come from the social sciences but I'm not sure that anything I say works much differently in other fields.

Such a senior person may be involved in various aspects of the process of hiring new colleagues in their department, either via serving on the search committee, serving as department chair, or merely being an influential voice in faculty meetings. So if you seek employment at such a person's institutions, they may hold some sort of bias against you. This could be out of malice or merely due to the underlying disagreement leading them to conclude you don't know what you're talking about.

They could also have various roles in the publication process, like serving as editor, associate editor, or peer reviewer at various important journals (or conferences). Of course, a peer reviewer does not know the identity of authors in many fields but I'm not sure about mathematics. At any rate, this person's influence in the editorial process could potentially close off some small number of avenues for publication.

I'm only familiar with the US system, but part of the process for gaining tenure here is that outside peers are invited to review your file. At many institutions that use these peers, even mild criticism from these peers can be deeply problematic for the candidate's chances at tenure and promotion. Should you be so unlucky, they could cause harm in that way. But the chances of them being invited for this purpose are low and I believe it would be considered inappropriate if you had some sort of public intellectual dispute with them.

The more informal influence such a person could have is by generally using their social status in the discipline to cast doubts about you or your work. I'd say that in general talking negatively to peers about another researcher would come off as very uncouth among the people I spend any time around. On the other hand, criticizing work can be very appropriate under certain circumstances although I'd admit it is not often that I find myself in situations that would open the floor for someone to start badmouthing some non-high profile research.

Besides the above, there's always the potential of the more juvenile and pernicious forms of rumoring and attempts at retribution that any person might try to do. But I don't think many (or any) people have the power to sort of push the red button that destroys some junior person's career. In fact, the most likely person to be able to do that is a person in a graduate student's department. Even then, we know many cases where apparent bad faith by an advisor/mentor/etc. fails to completely derail a researcher's education/career.

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As an addendum to the answers already given, it pays to be mindful that some academics can hold positions of various boards or committees that can either open doors to researchers or firmly close them with little explanation or oversight.

Or they may have the ear of the people who sit on those boards\committees.

This is particularly true when it comes to allocating grants or other forms of funding.

Notable academics can ensure that doors are opened to likeminded people, or people who they feel are expanding a particular field in the right direction. Often this is the direction that the academic is trying to take it. They can close them if they feel that you have the wrong mindset or are trying to take the field in the wrong direction.

This shouldn't be the case, and there are many academics who will be agnostic and open doors purely on merit. Knowing which type a person is can be important.

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Personal view on these issues is that the problems fall into several categories:

  • Economic Issues: When many agencies (NSF, NIH, ect...) choose external reviewers, they are often attempting to find known "subject matter experts" in the field, and therefore, a famous or highly cited author in the field is "probably" more likely to be chosen. Therefore, a famous or highly cited author is more likely to have influence over your financial funding future.
  • Social Network Effect: Generally, famous academics have more friends, ties, and influence in the community (similar to social media followers) and whether good or bad, their comments often carry disproportional weight. If a famous author criticizes your work, it can be more damaging than if a "nobody" criticizes your work.
  • Social Multiplier Effect: Peer effects are captured by the sum of friends' efforts in some activity. An individual pays a price for deviating from a norm. In the latter, as an individual gains more peers who have a certain attribute, they experience greater utility for adopting this attribute. "Act like us, we'll all do better."
  • System Gaming: Not all, yet many academic positions have become extremely competitive, and as the Guardian notes "academics is a highly incentivized game". When faced with this competition, many turn to gaming the system. This is a well known criticism of author level metrics. However, the same applies with a social network. The equivalent of "don't insult them, they're a 'high-level' player."
  • Viral Infectiousness: Related to the network effect above, a famous criticism has more pathways to infect someone's career. And if it represents something good for gossip, or viral sharing, then it may spread pervasively. "did you hear what so-and-so said about them?"
  • Rational Ignorance: In the face of evaluating potential threats to their academic career, a busy academic can't reasonably be expected to evaluate all the possible ways critiquing someone might be damaging. So you get rules of thumb, 'very important "not to rub such a person the wrong way"'
  • Anonymous Denial: From many sources of funding, the reviews, and even the denial of funding, may be completely anonymous. Even if there is a conflict of interest, from the person being denied's perspective, that can never be identified. Per the economic section above, famous are already more likely to be chosen to review, and there's no way for the submitter to note that the only harsh review was from someone they criticized.

"Are there examples of this?" While neither of the examples below are specifically of the "famous" case, there are numerous examples of the type of behavior that then leads to the pervasive fear of criticizing anyone of influence:

An Inside Higher Ed Article from Jennifer Snodgrass, also has several concrete examples of what leads to this behavior, especially the "Egos are huge. People may turn on you" section.

Note the pattern in the sites, there also appears to be a strong trend in current academia that it is not safe to talk publicly. The following article notes this directly:

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