Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Academic Parasite

When I wrote the title above, I thought to myself "Wait, I must have used that title before." In fact, a quick search of the archives shows that I have done exactly two (2) posts that contain the word parasite, but never have I used this title even though one of the two (2) previous posts uses the term in the same context I will use it today.

So that's pretty exciting (for me), but what does it mean? That's what I am going to discuss today: what does it mean to be an academic Parasite?

I can remember hearing this term twice: once a very long time ago, and once this week. There may well have been others, but they have not been stored in my long-term memory compartments.

The first time I heard it, I was a grad student and the speaker was an old and supposedly distinguished professor who hated most people, so it wasn't a surprise to hear him insult someone. Typically, that someone was me, but in this case, that someone was a perky-but-clueless visiting graduate student who had come to prostrate himself before The Great Man and glean little bits of wisdom. They met in the GM's office for an hour or so, and then the grad student came to my office to chat.

He said "We had a really great discussion!" (unlikely: The GM did not "discuss"; he lectured)

And "I think he really likes me!" Well, he did have a few acolytes, all male, who worshiped him, named their children after him etc., but I wasn't sure... and then:

The phone rang. It was The GM, wanting to talk to me. "Is THAT PARASITE still there?" he screamed into the phone. (etc.)

The second time, in a conversation this week, a professor who is a much nicer person than The GM asked me if I had ever worked with a particular individual. I said, without explanation "I used to, but not for quite a long time now." He laughed and said "Good! He's a PARASITE!" He's not wrong.. there are specific reasons I no longer work with that person.

But what does it mean?Are there different types of Academic Parasites? Do we need to classify them?

Of the two instances mentioned here, the first one was just a student asking a professor for advice, information, anything that would help him (the student) with his dissertation research. The GM's response was clearly extreme (it was a student asking for help!).

The second instance involves interactions among professors who are collaborators. In some cases, this distinction of student-professor vs. professor-professor interaction is important; in others, not. (<-- important note: That link is to a 2006 post, when things were different.)

I will propose a simple definition, for starters:

Someone who takes and uses the research ideas and/or results of others to advance their own research/career but doesn't give back, share, or cite appropriately = parasite.

But how do we know when someone has crossed a line between a somewhat unequal collaborative situation (this is not unusual) and a parasitic arrangement? Is a parasite by definition engaged in unethical behavior? That is, does the "taking" always = "stealing" (ideas, results)?

I think that if the taking/stealing involves people who are not collaborators, and the taking/stealing involves information from proposals or other unpublished work, the person in question is worse than a parasite, and there are probably more appropriate words. If, however, someone takes ideas from published work and then repackages them as their own (because they don't have any of their own), they are a weasly parasite.

If someone takes ideas and data from collaborators, then it is a bit more ambiguous. If someone is content to do (essentially) nothing but have their name put on papers as co-author, they are a passive parasite. If, however, they do (essentially) nothing and put their name on papers (but not yours or your students), then they are a more virulent and dastardly variety: the evil parasite.

This is not a very pleasant topic, but, in the course of a career, we encounter all kinds of people. Fortunately for me, the parasites have been few and far between, so my classification scheme (and/or my imagination) is rather limited. 

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