Work-life balance? Bah, humbug!

Nicholas Rowe reimagines Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in a modern university, with Professor Scrooge in charge of a target-driven department

December 24, 2015
Daniel Mitchell illustration (24 December 2015)
Source: Daniel Mitchell

It was a cold, bleak Christmas Eve. The university corridors were deserted and most of the faculty had headed off to their homes and loved ones. At the end of the hall, a dull glow came from an office shared by junior researchers. Sitting at his computer, Robert Cratchit did not have the luxury of “getting off early”. He was still tweaking a computer science article that he was expected to finalise before the Christmas break. Truthfully, Cratchit didn’t care much about the article. But that was the plight of short-term contracted researchers – do what you’re told, get it done on time, get a good result, then move on to the next bit of work. After all, that was what the game was really about: publishing in journals with high impact factors. High numbers supposedly represented “quality” work, and quality work meant funding. Cratchit was deeply cynical about the whole thing and longed to have the time and resources to make more in-depth contributions to his field, but at least his contracted work was relatively undemanding, leaving him time to focus his frustrations into more interesting and subversive things...

On the other side of the building, Cratchit’s boss was getting ready to head home. Computer turned off and chair straightened, Professor E. Scrooge decided to check in on his “team” before he left. Looking through the door of the junior researchers’ office, he gave an almost inaudible grunt of approval as he noted that although most appeared to have left early, Cratchit was still at his desk.

“So, will you have that ready for submission before you break for Christmas?” he asked, marching into the office.

Cratchit answered meekly that the journal would probably be closed to submissions until the new year.

“Humbug! They probably handle all the submission stuff in some office overseas or use some faceless automated system, so I doubt that something like Christmas will be an obstacle,” Scrooge thundered.

Cratchit bit his tongue and affirmed that the paper was nearly finished, and would be sent to Scrooge the moment it was ready. “Make sure you include your team members as co-authors, Cratchit; we can’t be seen to be a one-man band, eh?”

In fact, by holding regular departmental meetings, Scrooge made sure that all of his team were aware of each other’s work, so in essence they could be said to have made a “contribution” to it. He also kept a spreadsheet setting out how each of his researchers performed in terms of their individual outputs. Although things were on track for the next evaluation of his department, two of his underlings were a bit “light” on their outputs. As they claimed a considerable teaching load in their defence, it would do no harm to put them on Cratchit’s paper to strengthen their research profiles. After all, no one benefited if the department was seen to have any weak links.

Before Cratchit could raise any objection, Scrooge turned on his heel and swept out of the office.

Scrooge generally had little time for the social niceties of college life. Running a successful department required focus and attention to detail, and feigning interest in other people’s lives was something Scrooge found difficult to do. He hated Christmas dinners especially, and had already refused his nephew’s invitation for Christmas Day, but he felt obliged to attend the university Christmas dinner, where plans on strategy for the forthcoming assessment would no doubt be discussed. He did not want to be late, so Scrooge quickly headed off to his college lodgings to dress.

As the dinner drew to a close, he made his goodbyes, limply wished his colleagues well for the holiday break and headed home. As he passed the main college building, he noticed that the researchers’ office light was still on. Although Cratchit’s contract was soon due to expire, it could not be denied that he was a productive worker and always seemed to deliver results on time. Hopefully, the forthcoming assessment would raise enough funding to take him on again, but until Scrooge learned how his department fitted in with the new projections for the university, there was little he could offer him in the way of more secure tenure. Besides, the boy ought to be grateful he had a job at all. Plenty of others would be ready to step into his shoes, even if they had to work on Christmas Day. Scrooge crossed the quad, let himself in to his lodgings, and, weary from his social exertions, retired to bed.

Scrooge passed a fitful night, but this was nothing unusual. He had a recurring dream that featured Professor Marley, an old colleague and collaborator who had lived alone and kept himself to himself. Marley had died of a heart attack at his desk one Friday night, where he was found the following Tuesday by a cleaner (the Monday having been a bank holiday). He had had a fine academic reputation and a lofty position in the faculty, but years had passed since he died and few now recalled the contribution that he had made. In Scrooge’s dreams, the appearance of Marley always seemed to either drag up memories of the past, or cause Scrooge to indulge in self-doubt about the present and the future. However, in tonight’s dream, Marley was not alone...

“Scrooge – may I introduce you to the Ghost of Christmas Past!” Marley said. Out from behind him stepped a strange student-like phantom with a brightly glowing head who grabbed Scrooge’s arm and whisked him off into the black night. They emerged into a school room where Scrooge saw himself sat at his desk, diligently taking notes and raising his hand to answer the teacher’s questions. “Good at facts, Scrooge, but you learned little about others! It was always about you and your grades. You had no time for friends or classmates,” the phantom said accusingly.

Scrooge felt another yank on his arm, and suddenly they were transported to another class, this time at the university where he had done his doctorate. At the front stood Professor Fizzywig, animatedly engaged in a free-for-all discussion with his students. Although Scrooge had always been obedient, he had felt a quiet disdain towards Fizzywig for his lack of academic bearing and authority. In particular, he disliked his tendency to invite debate and questioning rather than instil the rote learning of important facts.

As Scrooge watched, another figure came and quietly sat down at the side of the room. It was Isobelle, a fellow PhD student with whom Scrooge had closely collaborated. Isobelle had been a vibrant girl, and although she had shown Scrooge nothing but kindness, Scrooge often spent his time with her venting his disapproval of Fizzywig’s methods, and propounding his own views of how things should be done properly. In the end, his constant mithering had driven a wedge between them and she had left to work elsewhere. Scrooge had never spoken of his feelings for her, and since that time he had become hardened against forming any emotional attachments. Deeply moved, Scrooge wondered what his life would have been like with her at his side, but it was too late. Feeling the familiar tug on his arm, Scrooge was whisked off into the blackness once more…

Daniel Mitchell illustration (24 December 2015)
Daniel Mitchell

He reappeared in front of Marley, who was this time accompanied by a large gentleman in a flowing green gown. Scrooge thought this was probably just another example of the strange academic garb affected by some of the more obscure universities, but Marley introduced the figure as “The Ghost of Christmas Present”. Without warning, Scrooge found himself transported to a dingy apartment, where he saw a red-eyed Cratchit working in front of a bank of computer screens. Scrooge was impressed that Cratchit should still be working during the holiday, although his publication record did not indicate any expertise in practical computer science. The array of equipment seemed incongruous with the otherwise sparsely furnished apartment, and Scrooge was intrigued to see what Cratchit was working on. What he was doing evidently involved more than simple writing, but just as Scrooge began to wonder if he should talk further with him when he returned from his holiday, his thoughts were interrupted as he felt the spectre take hold of his arm and sweep him off again.

This time, they touched down in a busy bar in the city centre. There, Scrooge saw a number of work colleagues, some of whom he even faintly admired. However, as he eavesdropped on their conversations he was surprised to hear little mention of “work”. Indeed, they appeared to have lives outside work, and their discussions (no doubt aided by a steady flow of drinks) centred on mundane matters such as their relationships, world affairs and interests other than authorship, impact and funding.

“Thought they were all as dedicated to their work as you, eh, Scrooge?” said the gaudy apparition. By now, though, Scrooge had had enough. He knew the prattle of the barrack-room lawyers about work-life balance, empathy, inclusion and the like. Bah, humbug! Guilt was a myth that was indulged in by the weak! At all professional institutions, there was work to be done and this was what people were paid to do! Besides, researchers could not research without grants, and grants came only to those who worked the hardest to get them.

“What the Charles Dickens do you mean by involving me in such a ludicrous and transparently contrived dream?” Scrooge thundered, but his green-garbed conscience had disappeared. Instead, he found himself back in bed. Marley was still in the room. “I suppose you are going to show me some empty grave next to yours and implore me to mend my ways?” said Scrooge.

“Not at all,”answered Marley. “Every scientist knows that dreams are simply fictitious products of a randomly stimulated mind. If I were to show you your future, you would probably discount it as just one of an infinite range of possible eventualities in a quantum universe. If you like, I can give you some dark, beckoning figure, but I doubt you would pay him much heed. I would offer you this though – be it Aesop or homespun bunkum: be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it…”. With that, Marley smiled knowingly and disappeared.

Scrooge woke in a sweat. Realising he was unlikely to get any further sleep, he got out of bed and set about doing something productive with his Christmas morning. Crossing to his computer, he opened his email. At the top of the list (sent at 01.35) was a message from Cratchit: “Dear Professor…paper attached for your review…authors listed as requested…click on link below to upload and submit the article (your user name and password are below & I have completed all of the other submission requirements)…hope this paper makes a decent impact…Merry Christmas & thank you for looking into renewing my contract, RC.”

Scrooge opened the attached manuscript and began to read. His weakest research links had indeed been given author recognition and, as he read on, Scrooge was impressed with the quality of Cratchit’s writing and data. His dream (if there was any element of reality to it) had shown that Cratchit might in fact have some practical as well as theoretical skill. However, taking him on as tenured faculty was a matter to be thought about another time.

Using the link Cratchit provided, Scrooge was directed to the automated submissions system. Seeing that all the sections had already been completed, Scrooge uploaded his document and pressed “submit”. A pop-up window appeared on his screen asking if he wanted to update his profile, and without much thought, Scrooge quickly clicked “Yes” and went to make himself a cup of coffee.

And so it began. With a simple click of a button, a common Perl-type code stream that had been embedded in the downloaded paper was sent off to the main server of the Journal Central system. Using a 10Mb run ActiveX link, when the system accepted it, it opened a path between the system and the computers in Cratchit’s apartment. First, it retrieved the contact and keyword profiles of anyone who had previously used the Journal Central system, and exported them to an asynchronous link server that could not be traced. The author details and keywords were extracted, and sent to an online GEN service, which correlated keywords obtained from previous submissions with reference sources found by free semi-scholarly search engines to produce a fabricated paper that was personalised to an existing author. It was constructed using actual published data themes, cited genuine sources and was composed using context-free grammar into a standard manuscript format. On its return, Cratchit’s system connected to the relational data system of Journal Central, formatted the manuscript to journal-specific requirements held in a separate database, and then submitted the paper using the author’s previous submission details. The contact details were amended to include a single additional period within the author’s email address, so that there was no chance that the real person was alerted to what was going on.

All resulting correspondence was then routed through a dedicated nym server that assigned a new corresponding author – with the pseudonym “S. Anta”. Any papers that were accepted without recommendations were then highlighted for Cratchit’s attention…which was duly given. He tweaked any final details and looked forward to the publication of the work. Soon, he hoped to find a way to remove himself from the process entirely, which he saw as one of the main goals of computer science.

Robert Cratchit still remains under the radar in terms of his practical research and innovations in computer science, and, in his cynicism, hasn’t felt the need to broadcast the grave flaws they highlight in the peer review system. In fact, he has remained unremarked upon by most people, and he still doesn’t have tenure. He does, however, share an apartment with a colleague who, if the all-important numbers are to be believed, ought to be showered with academic honours. Since Scrooge unwittingly launched the “virtual researcher” system last Christmas, S. Anta (the author that keeps on giving) has achieved 628 publications in his first year – albeit with an acceptance rate of 0.00063 – in journals with a combined impact factor of 98.76. This makes him the biggest single contributory author in science today, and as of next year he will start to write in 12 major world languages. According to a popular author analysis programme, his work has already achieved 17 citations in indexed journal articles.

In fact, as some of these appreciative colleagues may well be reading this story, it is only right that they be wished a merry Christmas, one and all!

Nicholas Rowe is an academic editor, and is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Lapland on poster presentation at academic and scientific conferences. Despite maintaining a healthy scepticism of some aspects of academe, he is not a computer hacker.

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