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Does Academic Karma Exist?

September 8, 2021

In a post from a while back, Dan Nexon had a line stood out to me: “The peer-review process is held together by masking tape and pixie dust.”

Dan was mostly referring to the stochastic nature of peer-review, as well as the difficulties editors face navigating divergent reviewer feedback, but his remarks apply across many aspects of journal editing, reviewing, and publishing (as well as most of academia). Indeed, I would even tag on my own addendum: in my interpretation, much of academia depends on what I refer to as assumptions about academic karma. Though I suspect these notions are vital to the academy’s functioning, when spelled out these notions seem equal parts ridiculous, sweet, and naïve.

I’ll explain. Though most academics are expected to do some peer reviewing, the quantity necessary to keep the entire ecosystem of journals afloat is far greater than the amount required to keep individual academics in good standing. Likewise, while editing a journal can be a rewarding experience that furthers an academic’s career, for most editors (especially of non-top flight journals) it comes with little in the way of payment, prestige, or tangible benefits. (Full disclosure: I was fortunate enough to receive a small stipend for editing Cambridge Review of International Affairs and, because I was a PhD student at the time, it seemed like a gargantuan sum, especially when converted into ramen and beer.)

The only remaining explanation I can muster for why all this editing and reviewing actually takes place is foolhardy notions of academic karma and my hunch is that others, when pressed, might articulate similar rationales.

By karma, I mean two interrelated things (one instrumental and the other normative) which are distant from the term’s roots in Buddhist beliefs about reincarnation. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll explain both from the perspective of the peer reviewer, though a parallel logic likely applies for many editors.

First, reviewers have a karmic hunch that, if they review and review well for journals, they will receive fair treatment when they submit to journals (either the same one or another). Of course, I have yet to meet an editor that keeps track of who reviews for their journal and then later ensures that person gets special treatment when they submit (just the idea of keeping such comprehensive naughty and nice lists makes me pity the bureaucrats at Santa’s Workshop). Nevertheless, for me personally, I find that this instrumental assumption provides good motivation to review even when I feel I’ve already done my quota.

Second, reviewers largely seem to believe that those who enthusiastically and diligently review contribute to academia’s kindness stockpile and, for this reason, merit good and fair treatment by journals and other gatekeepers. Most reviewers recognize that academia is hard and that academics are tired, overworked, and underpaid (at least relative to their white-collar peers). Yet, they also recognize that detailed feedback is absolutely vital to the research process and that feedback-giving is necessary to make sure good research flourishes. For this reason, reviewers lend a hand based on the belief that doing so, in the aggregate, makes the academy a less prickly and more humane place to spend one’s career. While certainly intertwined with the first reading, this second one is considerably less cynical—in many ways it’s just an elaboration of the idea that some academics are nice people and want the world to be a nicer place.

Though I suspect most academics will have considered these two interpretations before (perhaps articulated in different ways), elaborating them makes clear to me just how unrealistic they are. The first is, in most cases, patently false, while the second, though it makes us feel warm and fuzzy, creates the possibility for enormous amounts of free riding. In the words of one friend, “Academia disproves meritocracy, god, and karma all at once.”

Worse than academic karma not existing, I’m sure we all have in the back of our minds the names of a few people we think are particularly guilty of free riding and abusing karma-dependent systems. Indeed, I’m sure we all monitor these nemeses’ careers and are continually displeased to see them evade comeuppance. Part of this is baked into the academic cake. While many of the institutions governing academia—anonymous peer-review, standardized hiring practices that minimize personal vendettas, etc.—help protect against nepotism and unfairness, they also sometimes weaken the academy’s jerk-detection systems. If the academy is meritocratic, its definition of ‘merit’ certainly does not include kindness. Or, as one British academic friend put it: “Machiavelli should have written The Prince about the REF.”

In the words of one friend, “Academia disproves meritocracy, god, and karma all at once.”

Nevertheless, I retain my notions of academic karma and, despite knowing it is largely self-delusion, I have moulded it into principles that guide my teaching, researching, and mentoring. I’ve compiled a quick list from conversations with colleagues and include them here largely to get the ball rolling and see if anyone else shares similar ones. (I should note that, upon reflection, all these points are pretty much just different overlapping articulations of ‘be kind, rewind’…)

  1. Early career researchers are like plants—your job is to help them grow. If an enthusiastic apple tree comes to you and asks for help blossoming beautiful apples, don’t encourage them to become an orange tree. Much in the same way, if a PhD student who loves digging into archives and doing historical research comes to you asking advice, don’t tell them their methods are crap and they need to start hypothesis testing on large-N datasets. Encourage them to grow apples and, if you don’t know anything about apple production, send them along to a more seasoned farmer. Just remember, you’re only able to grow such good oranges because someone nurtured your orange-producing abilities when you were only a seedling.
  2. Make time for people; guard time from ‘the machine’.  Students and colleagues often ask you for time-consuming things: reading long drafts, writings recommendation letters, talking about what you might consider uninteresting/unviable ideas. These things can be difficult and frustrating, but, if they are genuinely helpful to the other people, make as much time for them as you can. At the same time, when managerial bureaucrats try to get you to waste other people’s time, it is your responsibility to play team defence. Be your department’s Kyle Lowry and take charges. This will ensure more time for good things like teaching, research, and reality television.
  3. Want there to be more good research in the world. Parts of the academy (especially the dismal job market) can be zero-sum and thus competition is inevitable. But the main bread and butter of teaching and research does not need to be. If someone else’s teaching benefits from my slides (including my collection of hundreds of perfectly curated IR-relevant New Yorker cartoons), then I should be happy to share them. Likewise, even though journals and book publishers cannot publish infinite amounts, we should generally want more good things to be published, as this will create a more lively, interesting, and useful ecology of knowledge. This final point might sound obvious, but I know I’m not the only one who sometimes instinctively thinks dark thoughts upon hearing of colleagues’ successes. We must isolate these dark thoughts and destroy them with Meryl Streep-levels of humility.

While these might simply be aspirational goals, by writing them out and posting them under my by-line, I’m hoping that people will hold me to account and, in turn, I’ll become a nicer academic citizen.

In the meantime, I’ll follow the comments and look out for messages eager to hear what others think. Does anyone else believe in academic karma?

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Adam B. Lerner is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London and Deputy Director of Royal Holloway's Centre for International Security (RHISC).