While I might be a captive in the Ivory Tower, at least I don’t have Stockholm syndrome

As a PhD student, I spend my days trying to do good ecological research; as are thousands of other aspiring ecologists around the world. Good work, however, is useless unless others know about it. Prospective employers, potential collaborators and other researchers must recognize my effort for it to be valuable, because unread research is obviously worthless.

Some purists might argue that doing good work the only way to get noticed. This would be true in a perfect world, but we all know stories where good work was left unrecognised (or, worse, instances where poor work was held in high regard). Good work is simply not enough; especially when the world is continuously being flooded by other good work. I must sell my wares because my visibility increases if my research is published in prestigious journals, picked up by the media or showcased in straightforward blog posts.

I have to constantly signal to others that my work is good.

I am untroubled by salesmanship in general. However, when salesmanship takes precedence over good work, the system fundamentally breaks down.

Consider the following diagram:


Let’s assume that everything considered “good ecology” (whatever that might be) falls within the orange zone. Similarly, “good signalling” is everything in the blue rectangle. There is obviously a large overlap between the two (green rectangle), because good ecology regularly speaks for itself and, sometimes, a bit a salesmanship is good for ecology (giving an engaging presentation at a conference, for example).

The trouble is that our value as ecologists is often judged by our ability to signal our worth and NOT our ability to do good work. We put too much emphasis on the blue rectangle and not enough on the orange rectangle.

Don’t believe me? Imagine two identical, albeit hypothetical, research papers published simultaneously – one in Nature and the other in PLoS One. Which do you think will be cited more often? Which would you rather have on your CV? That’s the effect of signalling.

Similarly, how much good ecology is being ignored because it doesn’t glow and sparkle? I’m specifically thinking about basic forms of natural history, taxonomy and the unglamorous replication of empirical studies.

This post is not an attack on salesmanship; if a bit of showmanship enhances the dissemination of knowledge, then it should surely be encouraged. I am advocating against rewarding signalling behaviour instead of ecological work.

We all know that salesmanship happens and we just shrug it off as one of the unfair realities of modern ecology. We accept it as just another unsavoury obligation to appease reviewers and funding agencies. But it is harmful. It leads to ecological bandwagons, where people jump from one hot research topic to the next, not because the questions are necessarily urgent but because they are the latest trend. It means that ecology is less about studying the dynamics of nature than it is about studying the behaviour of other ecologists.

It’s a closed, self-serving, system.


(This bit of Belgian graffiti is titled “Gesloten systeem” or, in English, “Closed system”)

I like academia and I enjoy fundamental ecology; in this sense I am a captive in the Ivory Tower. But I can’t accept that signalling behaviour is a necessary part of ecology. I can’t show sympathy to the closed system of bandwagons, salesmanship and the cult of personality… I don’t have Stockholm syndrome.

From now on, I will try my best to limit any baseless signalling behaviour. Here is a list of things I will try to avoid in the future (feel free to expand this list in the comments):

  • Submitting a manuscript to a journal based on its prestige or impact factor, instead of the intended target audience.
  • Citing papers based on anything other than scientific merit (e.g. author reputation, journal impact factor or prestige)
  • Undervaluing solid, but unglamorous, research in smaller journals.
  • Assuming that researchers from prominent universities are automatically superior to their counterparts from less famous institutions.
  • Splitting up my research into minimum publishable units in order to boost my publication output and enhance my CV.
  • Overselling the potential application value of fundamental research.
  • Jumping onto the newest research bandwagon in order to get published or funded.
  • Using fashionable jargon instead of clear definitions.
  • Using novel, but convoluted, analytical techniques instead of the simplest effective statistics.
  • Never again will I chase opportunities instead of pursing ideas. Funding should be a means to an end, not an end in itself.

4 thoughts on “While I might be a captive in the Ivory Tower, at least I don’t have Stockholm syndrome

  1. Great post Falko, I sincerely hope you stand by your goals. And you’re not alone…I have never understood why Ecology (and Science in general) is so corporate and cutthroat…I’ve written a few posts on this theme myself. Closed systems aren’t natural after all!
    Call me naive and idealistic (a lot of people do!), but I don’t understand how being like this will help the ‘industry’ progress, or gain deserved respect and appreciation from the non-scientific world.

    • I don’t really mind the bit where ecology is “corporate and cut-throat”; especially if it means the same as “professional and competitive” (it’s a fine line between the two though). But I do agree that it is not in the best interests of ecology as a whole when we, as ecologists, spend more time gaming the system to advance our own reputations than actually contributing to the field.

      I don’t think you are naive to feel that we have an obligation to protect our own industry, as you called it. I wonder if we fail to do this because we are (a) self-serving by nature or (b) unsure what the “greater good” of ecology might be.

      The fact that suggestions for a common set of values in conservation biology (like an ecological Hippocratic Oath) were met with animosity makes me fear that ecologists don’t necessarily agree that we should all serve some greater cause.

      • I remember that ‘debate’ that you link to in the last paragraph – and there’s been other great discussions on this theme before and since then. Unfortunately, the attitude of ‘Success’ outweighing integrity/honour/values seems to just be the human condition these days. But I’m not sure why Ecology/Science needs to follow suit – has it always been like that and just attracts those type of people? Or has it evolved like that to fit in with the political and cultural ‘norms’ of modern society?

        Either way, Science is not a corporate structure – it’s a field of discovery, the laws of nature and a philosophy of life. So why should we cheapen that, by boxing it into the same commercial packaging as every other corporate venture?

        And by the way, I am not at all against ‘success’ per se – we all want to succeed!! But I do believe that success comes at a cost, and we shouldn’t be flippant about what that cost is.

  2. There are a few really good points in your previous comment.

    I have NO idea whether ecology has always commoditised information like it does now.

    While it would be nice to reminisce about innocent times when naturalists explored biological splendour out of curiosity (instead of the pursuit of funding), I don’t think that this is necessarily the whole truth. Curiosity-driven science was very exclusive back then because anyone without a wealthy backer or a healthy inheritance would automatically be ruled out. We shouldn’t get too despondent because I think that ecology and conservation biology is more inclusive now than it has ever been before; more new ecologists are being trained every day.

    So the “commercial packaging” does have its upside as well.

    Nevertheless, I still agree that we shouldn’t be flippant about the costs of success. We should try to maximise the benefits of individual as well as the ecological community as a whole. It seems like a perfect case study for sociobiological and game-theory analyses… if we can just get over the hurdle of agreeing on the collective goal of the ecological community.

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