Cordelia Fine - my Greed

Dr Fine is at Macquarie University
Last year I applied for a research fellowship, and while putting the application together I emailed my sister to ask if there is some standard way of describing the impact of your academic work. In less than five minutes she was on the phone to tell me my “h-index”.

Publications are the currency of researchers, and the idea behind the h-index is that it’s sensitive to both the quantity and impact of publications. Basically, the h-index is the academic equivalent of reading someone’s bank statements.

“And you can look up anyone’s h-index online?” I asked.

“Yep,” my sister replied. And then, even though I’d put the question casually, she added, “But don’t go there.”

My first thought on putting down the phone was, “The application can wait.” My second thought was, “Oh. I thought I’d grown out of that person.”

Greed is a rapacious desire and pursuit of wealth and power, and in secondary school it was the status of class swot that I was hungry for. There was a girl at school – let’s call her ‘Alison Stevens’. She played first oboe in the school orchestra, hit a hockey ball with unerring deadliness, but – most importantly – she was smart. The possibility that she might be smarter than me was intolerable and, without ever explicitly acknowledging it, the two of us vied relentlessly to be top of the class. When I scored 97 per cent in a biology test, it was not the sense of wonderment for photosynthesis enabled by my solid grasp of the material that brought me satisfaction. It was the 2 per cent I got on the test that put me ahead of Alison Stevens.

This, I realise now, was excellent preparation for life in academia. Because ‘Publish or Perish’, the mantra of the aspiring researcher, can give rise to a competitive mindset that is basically a grown-up version of ‘Beat Alison Stevens’. We aspire to more, better, bigger…what we do is rarely enough and the academic coffers can always be swelled more. A colleague recently described to me the tense, protracted negotiations that took place over authorship position on a paper about to be submitted to a prestigious scientific journal. Nobody, it seems, said, ‘Oh, just put my name wherever you like. The important thing is that I contributed to the acquisition of new scientific knowledge to the benefit of the our community and society at large, and that’s enough for me.’ If no one has ever actually been murdered for the first author spot, I suspect it is only because that prized position could be retained posthumously.

Of course scientists simply don’t work in a climate where they can afford to be what philosopher of science Philip Kitcher calls the ‘epistemic purist’ – a virtuous scientist for whom the reward of work comes solely from the heady joy of acquiring reliable, generalisable knowledge about nature. The epistemic purist has no interest in the external rewards their work can also bring: the social recognition, the status, the ability to casually say things like, ‘Your coat? Oh, just sling it on the mass spectrometer.’

The idea of a scientific community populated by people for whom external rewards are as nothing certainly has appeal. Moreover, as psychologist Barry Schwartz has pointed out, the seeking of external rewards can sometimes undermine science’s proper goal. Schwartz notes, for example, that the internal goal of science is not served when scientists perform easily publishable but unimaginative and uninformative work in order to maximise their publication output, or keep their results secret from other researchers in order to maintain a competitive edge. At its most extreme, a focus on external rewards tempts scientists to fabricate data.

Fine's latest book is out now in paperback
Then again, just as I probably have Alison Stevens to thank for the A-level results that got me a place at Oxford University (where my intrinsic reward lever was adjusted to the ‘on’ position), so too may the pursuit of external goods bring about valuable scientific discoveries. Kitcher makes the case that ‘sullied’ scientists – those whose motives are a more recognisably human mix of internal and external – may actually make for a cognitively healthier and more productive scientific community. As he concludes, ‘starry-eyed idealism is by no means necessary to serve the community well.’

All of which leaves me unsure whether I want to give up that greed I still carry with me from my school-days, assuming I even could. Some days I think I’m too greedy. But other times (especially when preparing fellowship applications), my magpie eyes are hungry for the prize and I can’t help but wonder if I’m not greedy enough.

This post is part of the Research Digest's Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we'll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month's Psychologist magazine.
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