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I am an established researcher in my discipline, which is a sub-field of computer science. In the last years, I have successfully published papers and generally enjoyed doing research, as in developing methods, coding, running experiments, etc.

However, unfortunately, I have come to hate my peers in this discipline because of bad experiences I made on multiple fronts. I am not speaking about my colleagues at work, but rather my fellow researchers around the world. As author I have witnessed (primarily at venues with very high reputation)

  • Reviews asking you to cite irrelevant papers (presumably published by the reviewer)
  • Minimum effort reviews that are useless for improving the manuscript: Some extremely positive (Accept + "I could find no flaw here" (the paper definitely had several flaws)), some extremely negative (Reject + "This is not novel. Let's move on." (the other reviewers praised the novelty))
  • A desk rejection after waiting 11 months for a peer review, arguing that the paper is out of the journal's scope.
  • Reviewers demanding a revision in a conference rebuttal where the rules forbid me from providing one.
  • Upfront discrimination based on my nationality.
  • General closed-mindedness and unwarranted hostility towards fundamentally novel ideas, paired with a strong preference for minor extensions of existing work while simultaneously complaining about the prevalence of incremental results and salami-slicing publication tactics.

As reviewer I have witnessed

  • Authors who write elaborate response letters but are unwilling to significantly change a single paragraph of their manuscript, even if all reviewers demand it.
  • Not a single response letter / rebuttal comment that is not full of boot-licking. (Many reviewers get emotional when authors are not extremely polite and submissive, so the authors are not really to blame)
  • Fake results (I ran their experiments using their own code, and their method was not best like they claimed, but worst).
  • Fellow reviewers not responding to a single comment by the authors or chairs, thus completely undermining a conference's rebuttal phase where authors are supposed to get a chance to defend their work.
  • Every single paper I review shows clear signs of data-dredging (see here). This is perhaps unsurprising – authors are forced to do data-dredging because the baseline performances they compare their methods against were also achieved using data dredging, and negative results, i.e., bad performances, get immediately rejected, without exception.

The list goes on. I think that it is quite clear that I have a very bad impression of my fellow researchers around the world, and that my experiences have made me a bitter, and perhaps petty person.

Nowadays, a researcher's productivity is mostly assessed by counting the number of publications and citations thereof (Publish or Perish), so I am more or less forced to write, submit, revise and review papers. And I enjoy the scientific and technical work. But interacting with my peers in the same discipline, especially via peer review, just fills me with bitterness.

So, my question is:

How do I continue working on my research when I completely and utterly despise my peers in the discipline?

Have any of you been in a similar situation, and what did you do to move on?

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 3, 2023 at 16:54

11 Answers 11

35

I have experienced the majority of the problems you describe in your post, in some cases even worse (e.g., over a year for a perfunctory referee report, over two years in total for a referee report). I've also experienced a number of other types of unprofessional conduct that you haven't listed. While these things are certainly annoying, and cause one to despair for the state of academia sometimes, it has not led me to despise people in the profession. Instead, let these inconveniences wash over you and accept that sometimes you will need to deal with the foibles and bad conduct of others. Use these negative experiences as signposts for what not to do in your own work and let those bad experiences be a driver for you to perform your own work in a professional, ethical and timely manner.

I notice that many of the issues you raise involve unprofessional conduct in review processes in academic journals. I've also experienced this over the years and I'm also familiar with more general critiques of the entire academic publishing industry (see e.g., Scholar Nexus). As a result, I've developed a stronger preference for publishing work directly to ArXiv in cases where the journal system performs poorly in dealing with my work. In most cases when I publish now, I submit to journals initially to see if I can get something published in an appropriate journal in my field, but if I get mucked around then I'm happy to publish directly to ArXiv, even if this harms the impact of my publications. This can have some negative repercussions in terms of impact and academic performance, but it can be a useful trade-off in some cases. (It is also a good way to encourage a move away from closed-access academic publishing systems.) If you are at breaking-point on these issues, you should consider whether you might regain some enjoyment of your profession by publishing outside of the traditional academic publishing system.

As a more general observation, it might also be worth your while to step back and think more broadly about the relationship you would like to see exist in society between the evaluation of personal value and professional work. I have always felt that society tends to judge people too heavily on the status of their job and their competence in that job. Naturally, some people are not competent in aspects of their work. (Indeed, there is a famous management principle that people rise to their level of incompetence.) Professional shortcomings, in relation to work tasks, should be seen as a professional development areas for people, but it shouldn't generally cause feelings of hatred or bitterness. If you can step back and re-evaluate the distinction between personal value and professional work, you might find that it gives you some peace of mind and allows you to enjoy your colleagues more.

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  • 5
    "I have always felt that society tends to judge people too heavily on the status of their job and their competence in that job." If I don't know you, there's not much else to go on besides others' personal opinions of you, and things that are illegal to judge you on.
    – RonJohn
    Jun 9, 2023 at 9:21
  • 14
    @RonJohn: If you don't know someone, then how about simply not judging them at all? Jun 9, 2023 at 15:31
  • 10
    @RonJohn: Yes, sure - but this seems to be very different from what Ben comments on in his last paragraph. OP doesn't say "Some of may colleagues behave unprofessionally, so I don't want to work with them"; OP essentially says "Some of may colleagues behave unprofessionally, so I hate them". Ben doesn't suggest that people's professional performance shouldn't be evaluated based on their, well, professional performance. He rather suggests (or at least, this is my understanding of what he suggests) that one shouldn't judge people's personal value based on their professional performance. Jun 9, 2023 at 17:32
  • 3
    @RonJohn: "don't care" in which context, though? If I decide whether to cooperate with a colleague C on a research project, then it's relevant for me whether they are "lazy and ineffective". If, however, it comes to very intense and personal feelings - OP used the word "hate" - then no, I won't hate C just because they are lazy and ineffective, because people are much more than just their professional lifes (for instance, as you write, parents and spouses). Jun 9, 2023 at 22:48
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    @JochenGluek, RonJohn: Thanks for discussion guys. Per Jochen, I can confirm that I had in mind a more holistic evaluation occurring in broad contexts outside performance evaluation. There are indeed some decision-making contexts where professional competence is the only matter at issue. I take it that OP's feelings have spilled beyond a mere evaluation of professional performance by others, which is why I mention the latter point in my answer.
    – Ben
    Jun 9, 2023 at 23:23
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I am afraid that what you are describing here is (a probably slightly pessimistic and dramatic view of) the current general state of academia. I have been authoring and reviewing in different fields (space technologies, and then machine learning and computational neuroscience), and many of the flaws you identified (e.g. reviewers asking for self-citations or providing unhelpful comments, long review process, or reproducibility crisis - and yes, even in computer sciences: What should I do when I can’t replicate results from a conference paper?) have been well identified across fields. Even to the point of turning into comedy:

As the popular saying goes, we, as researchers, need to accept what cannot be changed and have the strength to change what can be.

To accept what cannot be changed: innisfree's comment is spot on. You don't hate your peers, but you rather dislike several aspects of academia. As in any complex system involving a lot of people, there is a "pyramid of irresponsibility" in academia, in which you have nice peers but end up with a system having several flaws. Regarding the hostility towards novel ideas that you mentioned: note that there is often a very thin and blurry line between self-claimed novelty and crackpottery.

To change what can be changed: some obvious steps to be taken involve reporting unethical publishing practices, refusing to submit or to review for discutable journals and venues, and supporting initiatives or travel grants that aim at reducing discrimination in academia. Other interesting initiatives have been taken:

14

Since you did not say that you hate all your peers, I assume that you hate some of your peers. They may be many and even the majority, but I still suggest:

Find peers that you like, meet them more often, avoid the ones that you actively hate.

As for me, I do not really hate any peers, but I can definitely relate to some of your words. My tactic was and is: find a nice group of peers with which you interact. This group makes me feel welcome enough and also helps me to shrug off experiences like underwhelming effort of reviewers.

Re-reading the body of the question, it now appears that you may have more problems with peers during peer-review only, and not in general. For this, I do not have good advice other than "continue to be professional, act in the positions where you can act, keep speaking up if something is not right".

10

Your complaint is about the behavior of authors and reviewers. Authors and reviewers are supposed to be supervised by an editor or conference chair. If authors and reviewers are persistently doing a bad job, that means the editor is doing a bad job. That fits with my experience that most editors do almost nothing.

If you want to improve the situation, become an editor or conference chair.

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  • 5
    I think that is actually quite good advice. If you are annoyed of the review-process, try to act. You can act a little as a reviewer, but even more as editor or chair. Of course you can't change the world. But honestly: Nobody can. But you can still act - and if others act as well, the world will change.
    – Dirk
    Jun 8, 2023 at 13:03
  • Sometimes as editor sadly you only have the choice between low quality reviews written on the quick (or no reviews at all) and letting the author wait for ages because nobody with really good competence agrees to review (or worse, people agree and then don't deliver). Jun 8, 2023 at 23:08
  • @ChristianHennig The third choice is to spend more time recruiting or coaching reviewers. That is always a possibility. Jun 8, 2023 at 23:24
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    @AnonymousPhysicist How would "coaching reviewers" look like? The first issue is invited reviewers don't agree to review, in which case you can't coach them. And I doubt that a reviewer who takes next to no time for their task because of other more urgent things (reviewing doesn't help their career, other things do - at least that's what most of them believe) will be keen on being coached, or that it will help. Jun 9, 2023 at 0:07
  • FWIW, it is hard to become an editor or conference chair. I was just reading somewhere about how country X is so misogynistic because (i) there's a firmly-entrenched old-boy network in country X and (ii) there is a "grind culture" in country X where you have to work really, really hard to get ahead in country X. Therefore, it's easier to give up than it is to achieve a position of authority and change things, so change is slow. Sound familiar?
    – user45103
    Jun 11, 2023 at 17:13
8

The bulk of science is done by PhD and PostDocs. Afterwards, the researchers become something that can be described as "research managers" and there is all this theater you are describing.

It is an hypocrital system, the ones "leading" it are the ones playing by the rules, so they are researchers accepting (and preserving, with or without the intention) this theather and at the same time providing resources to PhDs and Postdocs.

How to move on? Move on! Look for a position in the industry or in regulatory bodies/public entities/foundations. Look for application of your research and publish in other venues, if you think it is a people thing limited to your subfield and not a systematic thing.

6

In the interests of being constructive :

Find the peers you do like and consider starting a purely online peer-review journal of your own. You can set the rules and standards you and your like-minded peers want.

This might be one way to address (in a small way) your issues with the current state of peer-review publication. Create an outlet for like-minded academics and see if it gains traction, either as a publication in it's own right or as a concept that others try.

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    Starting an own journal is definitely feasible! One can use episciences, for example. Here is an example two colleagues of mune fundedn: Journal of Nonsmooth Analysis and Optimization, jnsao.episciences.org It's now index in the important math databases.
    – Dirk
    Jun 9, 2023 at 13:56
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With having a by far less experience, I will just express my point of view which is: simply we enjoy what we do. All aspects have something negative and here is well described situation(s) that are negative within academia in general. Thus the question is how we can act differently and how we can inspire others to act differently

3

You have to distinguish:

  • the game you play that is called "career in academia"
  • actual sensible, correct (and maybe even useful) research

You haven't invented the game, you cannot really change the rules, and -- unless you are tenured and do not care about getting grants -- you need to follow the rules of the game.

Thinking of it as a game actually makes it a lot easier. You just follow arbitrary rules and then you can "win" a tenured position somewhere, or a grant. This is not a about truth, it is just playing by the rules.

Depending on your position and your time and your research interests you may spare some time for the real research, even maybe finding some overlap between the real research and the game. This then rewards your inner truth seeking self. And is of course a lot more fun than the other part.

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    This is much the same point of view that also causes e.g. the political system of China to continue. Sure you could argue that it's ok, the system kind of works... but then, clearly there has to be some point where it just crosses into the unethical. Jun 8, 2023 at 15:27
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    In particular, if that career-game actively prevents sensible&correct research from being conducted (or at least from getting a voice) then surely one should question whether it's justifiable to keep playing. Jun 8, 2023 at 15:34
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    @leftaroundabout Sure, but being in academia and fighting the system will probably make your life miserable. Unless, of course, you are tenured. There are indeed some professors who stopped caring about what people expect from them from the point the reached tenure. And, to be clear about this, "the system" still produces a lot sensible research. Jun 8, 2023 at 15:38
  • Even if you play the game "right," you can still lose. I'm not disagreeing with you, just pointing it out.
    – cgb5436
    Jun 9, 2023 at 3:34
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How do I continue work if I love my research but hate my peers?

I suggest that you consider your options. You may find that, compared to peers in other areas, such as business, public sector, and so on, your current peers that you hate so deeply are quite decent people:-) Or maybe this is not so, then you may have some real options:-)

2

I'm a postdoc so perhaps not senior or wise enough yet to post, but I didn't see answers I liked so much so I'm posting anyway.

Step 0: You pack up your troubles with you. @akhmeteli makes an important point, but perhaps too subtly for my taste. The OP has identified that there are certain unattractive aspects of the peer-review process, and these seem to be more "cultural" (I would say) than "structural" in the sense that if only we had a better batch of people --- I would prefer to say a better culture of research, better norms particularly --- then the peer review process would be more pleasant and less petty. A significant minority of posters have suggested that, well, sounds like OP should go into industry -- I say, not so fast! Industry could be just as bad if not worse. There is a saying: "You pack up your troubles with you." I don't take this to be a question about staying in academia or not.

And then OP actually doesn't mention quitting academia and suggests in the post that they are relatively well-established (i.e., not at a fork in the road where staying in academia is concerned). I do have a friend who quit academia for reasons along these lines (he and I had a cathartic conversation about how the problem was ego, which is very relevant to this question in my estimation, but that's somewhat beside the point).

Key issue: people are only human. It's interesting the OP says "I hate my peers," not "I really dislike/resent the way peer review is conducted" or something along those lines. I am not trained in psychology, but my understanding is the statement "I hate group X" functions to dehumanize -- or, more relevantly, distance oneself --- from that group. Here's my point: nowhere in the post does the OP acknowledge that they, too, engage in some similar behaviors.

Are the OP's hands really completely clean here? Or, better question: does the OP not realize that they probably also do some similar things, if not in research, then in other aspects of their life? Or perhaps it is a matter of degree and not kind...? So I could say "I hate robbers, they're so low," but then I have been known to download pirated media online... which might not be robbery per se, but it is a kind of stealing.

So I would try to reframe this less about "I hate these people" and more about "Sometimes we are responding to incentives or our egos in ugly ways" (keyword: we) or, at a higher level, "I wish we had a culture that was more idealistic/highminded/principled/generous/understanding/fill-in-the-blank..."

Step 1: They are just as human as the OP. We all have egos. I see what the OP is describing and a lot of it is about ego. For instance, the part mentioning "incremental results": only the reviewer's work is interesting, the author's work is merely incremental. That's ego --- it's also an example of cognitive bias: seeing what you want to see.

Everyone suffers from cognitive bias. That's not a problem that's going away. People are doing their best, but they have blind spots. Some may be worse than others. So, yes, they really may be convinced in their own heads that the work they want you to cite is relevant and needs to be cited --- or they justify it because everyone else does it, or they just need to get this promotion to save their marriage and that justifies it --- in my experience of academia, it seems more like (extreme) cognitive bias due to pressure and competitiveness rather than outright corruption. (Though I have to say, I do think corruption is a good one to keep in mind.) For instance, I have seen what I feel is a very weak paper get published in a quite reasonable journal, but I believe it is because the authors were under so much pressure to get something done that they honestly convinced themselves the paper was worth publishing, not because they cynically accepted pulling a fast one. My point: unless given clear counter-evidence, can we accept that these petty issues are matters of legitimate professional disagreement mixed in with personal error? Perhaps someone had a bad day? Can the OP accept that he might be wrong? Maybe the work really is incremental. Unlike CS research problems, these are subjective questions.

Now, it may be that the OP is a particularly less cognitively biased person than others --- or they believe themselves to be --- but what of sympathy? Also, can we really be sure we're less cognitively biased than others? Or, in general, more moral than them? More principled? I certainly do believe myself to be more principled and more self-circumspect than most of my colleagues --- I go to great lengths to try to give the author the benefit of the doubt and explain literally what I am trying to say ---, but I can also admit that I am just as human as everyone else. I have my own blindspots and lapses.

Step 2: The OP is as human as they are So, again, to me "I hate these people" has a bit of a suggestion of "I am better than these people." I mean, why hate otherwise? I don't want to push this too far --- I didn't actually detect that much condescension or superiority in the OP's writing --- but I think there is a point to be made.

Is the OP too good to just hold his nose and go through the peer review process like everyone else? (What would be the downsides?)

Case in point: I recently had a review that really upset me. I could go into the details --- they're potentially scandalous --- but does the OP really care? What's really important here? I want my research to be published, so does OP, and I also want it to be peer reviewed. Unfortunately, there is a level of politics and pettiness that shows its face. Has it prevented OP from having a research career? Is OP putting food on the table? On track to get a permanent position? In my case, my work is still being published so the upsetting review is a matter of cosmetics. "Sticks and stones." (Actually, the lukewarm response to some of my recent work does mean I have still more reason to migrate to a slightly different subfield, but it's not just one review I'm afraid and the writing has been on the wall.)

When I started teaching, I very quickly realized my teaching evaluations had been much too harsh. When I started trying to work with PhD students on research, I realized how hard that was, and how harsh a critic of my own PhD adviser I had been. That's what I mean when I say: we're all human. It's easy to criticize others, just be careful not to go too far. You're about as good as them.

Can the OP really say that he hasn't been petty, egotistical, or unfair in any of his reviews? Perhaps he can. But should he say it? Are you in a better position to deal with this problem believing it is about other people (hence "I hate them") or understanding it is about the community (hence, e.g., "Our community needs stronger norms") and acknowledging you yourself suffer from related pitfalls?

A solution? I think once you reframe the question, it becomes easier to see possible solutions. For me (I am in the same boat as OP, except I'm a postdoc, perhaps not an "established researched"), it comes down to this.

It's not (all) about me. There's room for debate about which work is better than which other work, and, as I learned in the process of getting a PhD, very smart people (with PhDs) can surprise you in terms of things they may simply misunderstand on any given day. So maybe they're just wrong! Or maybe I am! I can still go home and love my wife, enjoy my hobbies, ... and enjoy research?

So there's a question: can you enjoy research even when it's not appreciated as you feel it should be? Can you enjoy it if you're not at the top? Or not a professor "at Harvard"? (Are there other careers --- less competitive perhaps --- you might enjoy just as much?)

Or, more relevant to the OP's specific question, can you hold your nose and deal with reviews (or author's response to reviews you wrote), even when you have your questions about them? Notice I said "have your questions" --- not "the reviewer was way out of bounds," "he said my work was incremental," etc., just "OK, you don't agree with the reviewer, such is life." Can the OP live with that?

Don't ask me for (more) specific strategies, I'm working on those as well. But I do think humility helps, and not looking to point a finger, building a case against the reviewer, etc. helps. If you're at a point where you notice the reviewer used the adjective "incremental" and you're stewing over that, looking for support from people online about how you're in the right, etc., that behavior right there --- that is what I'm actively working on not doing. You have no control over other people, but you do have some over yourself.

Is this stuff really what you want to spend your time thinking about? (If so, how can you transition your career or your free time so you're changing "the system" then? Or maybe, instead of a question-and-answer site discussion, which might not be optimized for this, you want to organize a discussion forum at a conference where academics get together expressly to talk about these kind of "cultural" issues? I don't want to be patronizing, but I don't think Q&A is the best way to go about this.)

You know the worst part of the review I mentioned above? The worst part is knowing the reviewer has a point, even though I mostly feel it was an unfair review! So how much nuance or subtlety is really worthwhile here? (I.e., is the reviewer really completely wrong, or are they just unfair, and does it really matter?) Let's go find other problems to work on and keep improving. So far I said a lot about the review and nothing about the actual research involved. Part of me is determined to prove the reviewer wrong by publishing follow-up papers improving on the first one --- because I do think our work is interesting and I have a hunch there's a lot more to do. The other part? The other part of me thinks it's not worth it and I should just transition to a different set of research problems entirely! Either way, sounds like I have better things to do than stew over the review, no?

Addendum: Case study. OK, so here's an example that I think illustrates what I'm on about. I guess what I'm trying to say after all is: don't take things (so) personally.

I know a bunch of researchers, all in the same field, who will not talk to each other. Mary won't talk anymore to her PhD adviser Frank. Kyle won't talk to me because of a heated argument once between us. Did I mention Frank and his former postdoc Skip don't talk to each other either? And Bob and his former PhD student Claude don't speak anymore either.

Kyle won't talk to me, but, you know what, I'm determined to show no such antipathy towards them. I'm ready to resume communication at any time, and I look forward to the day we're talking again. It's nothing personal to me. I get it, it's not unique to Kyle! Just look at Frank and Bob! Kyle is probably a great person (who, by the way, I don't know well at all), it's just our job is competitive, there's a lot of pressure, people get into arguments.

If I descend into the "I really dislike my colleague Kyle. Help me, Academia Stackexchange," the problem is I indulge my ego (or something like that --- again, not a psychologist here). I indulge the belief that I'm better than Kyle. Anyway, what is there to do? Maybe Kyle just has nothing to say to me. We'll probably meet at a conference and I'll realize it was all in my head. So what is it? I believe he's got lots of potential as a researcher and I want our field to benefit as much as possible from that --- his success is mine as well, I really believe that. So, as far as I'm concerned, I'm here to do research, I hope to work with Kyle again some day, but I have other collaborators and so does he so I'm not worried.

And, more generally, I'm determined not to fall into the same trap as the others. I want to do the best work possible. I want to work with other researchers. I'm here, I'm talking. If we have personal disputes, we'll deal with them, try to put them to the side, have heated arguments. But I'm not "ghosting" or going into "not talking to so-and-so" mode. As far as "What can I do about Kyle?," or "What can I do about the reviewers?", not taking things personally is my best answer.

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  • How does your friend feel now that he has been out of academia? Did he find the non-academic world superior, or did he find it has the same problems but just in a different form?
    – Cole
    22 hours ago
0

I had thought this is about colleagues at work. Alas, it's about colleagues I can relate to. On many fronts, I relate with your description. There're certain journals and conferences I don't bother about anymore: I just skip 'em.
PS: I have a computing background (at masters level). I've moved on more towards social sciences and IS

However, unfortunately, I have come to hate my peers in this discipline because of bad experiences I made on multiple fronts. I am not speaking about my colleagues at work, but rather my fellow researchers around the world

All I can say, which is what I do, keep putting in your utmost best in research work, research writing and especially in reviewing.

Though I might not change the world, I positively consciously influence the dots/bubbles within my sphere.

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