A case of malice in wonderland

December 2, 2005

Tim Birkhead finds the striking similarities between Academia and Lewis Carroll's world curiouser and curiouser

Far, far away, in the land of Academia, the red Queen rules with ruthless efficiency. Anyone who is not up to scratch stands to lose their head, or worse.

"This doesn't sound like a very nice place," said Alice.

"No. But it can be," said the Mock Turtle. "It depends on whether you can keep the Queen happy."

"Well," said Alice, "How do you do that?"

"The most important thing," the Mock Turtle replied, "is to keep running; faster and faster. The Queen insists on us winning everything, but it is difficult. For example, she wants us to win an event called the research race. But you cannot even enter unless you win the grants race, and relatively few win that. Thousands of workers enter, but very few finish successfully."

"What are the rules? Is it a fair test?" asked Alice. "I thought in Academia everyone was a winner."

"Alas, no," said the Mock Turtle. "You're thinking of the Caucus race where the tiny turtles are all winners. No, this is more serious."

"How can it be more serious when no one knows the rules?" said Alice. "And, anyway, why does it take so long?"

"Because, to convince the judges - the Queen's cronies - you have to specify every little detail: if you don't, it's 'Off with your head!'"

"Gosh," said Alice, "does that mean that those who fail have wasted their time?"

"Yes. Wasted their lives possibly. But, on the other hand, the winners have money for three years to help prepare themselves for the research race."

"Well, at least that sounds sensible," said Alice.

"Yes, it would be, but changes in grading structures mean that some types of research assistant now work fewer hours while the researchers have to compensate and work more and more."

"That sounds very silly," said Alice. "What if you are lucky enough to be a winner?"

"We do the work and try to publish it somewhere prestigious," the Mock Turtle replied.

"What's prestigious?" asked Alice.

"Good question," said the Mock Turtle, "no one knows."

"But someone must know what prestigious means," said Alice, even more confused.

"Well, yes," said the Mock Turtle, "it means somewhere with high impact."

"I see," said Alice, although she did not really. "What's impact?"

"It can mean two things. Either getting work published in an important journal, but that in itself is a lottery; or writing something that is likely to receive many citations, such as a review."

"Why not simply write one of those?" asked Alice.

The Mock Turtle sighed and drew one flipper across his eyes. He tried to speak but sobs choked his voice. At last he recovered. "If only it were so simple: we aren't encouraged to do that."

"Not encouraged to publish reviews?" said Alice incredulously.

"No, the Queen doesn't like them," the Mock Turtle replied.

"What! Even though they get the highest ratings?" asked Alice. "This is curiouser and curiouser."

Alice considered a little before asking: "Well, what about books? Surely the Queen likes those."

"Well, yes, but only when she is wearing her humanities hat; the rest of the time she can't bear books at all."

"But what will the little turtles read if they are to become big turtles?"

asked Alice.

There was no answer.

"I can't believe all this," said Alice, wondering if anything would ever happen in a sensible way again.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.

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