Don't leave that head in the bed...

May 13, 2005

...until you've got the facts. Careers can be ruined by academic rivalry and you could jeopardise yours if you act in haste, says Harriet Swain

You've just discovered the names of two people about to peer review your life's work and it's not good news. One you beat to a pulp - metaphorically - in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement , the other - physically - in the lobby of the Royal Society after Christmas drinks. Maybe you have taken this academic rivalry thing too far.

What you have to work out early on, according to Alex Haslam, professor of psychology at Exeter University and an expert in group dynamics, is the kind of academic you see yourself to be. How far are you an individualist who enjoys going it alone, he asks, and how far do you enjoy being part of a research team or movement?

You then need to define the character of the research field in which you are working. Is it one that is highly individualistic or does it have distinct camps?

He suggests that if there are camps, it is worth thinking hard about joining one because rivalry is easier to deal with at a collective level.

Aligning yourself with one group may make it more likely that your work will be criticised by members of the other. However, it will also give you somewhere to turn for support.

"When you suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous reviews, you need people you can talk to and with whom you can develop a collective response," Haslam says.

He argues that those who choose to be more individualistic and do not have a strong support network, have to be much more careful about causing offence. "They are often seen as much more strategic, trying to be all things to all people," he says.

He warns that it is also tempting for these academics to take attacks personally. "A lot of criticism is good," he says. "You shouldn't interpret it personally. It's just someone who doesn't like what you are doing."

Choosing whether to take the individual or team-based academic path is a particularly important decision for anyone whose work strongly contradicts the consensus. "Individualism works fine if you are part of the mainstream but not if you are part of a critical movement," Haslam says. It is also important for those from oppressed groups in academia, such as women or ethnic minorities, he suggests, because they may need more peer support than most to fight discrimination.

This is where you may need to start getting official. The line between rivalry and harassment or discrimination can sometimes be a fine one.

Ronald Barnett, professor of higher education at the Institute of Education, says most institutions have anti-bullying policies that could be used to tackle rivalries between members of a department. He suggests it is worth finding out about what legal options are open to you, even if you do not decide to use them.

David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, says that in the US, the courts will accept the right to terminate tenure if someone is failing to behave in a collegial manner, although nothing similar exists in the UK. However, he warns that an institution may have the legal responsibility to step in to stop rows between rivals because of its duty of care to its employees. One danger in this strategy, however, is that an academic told to stop attacking another's work could claim his academic freedom was under threat.

Barnett says the best option is sometimes to keep quiet and wait for the attacks to stop. "Sometimes you don't want to give people the oxygen of publicity," he says.

While nobody has the right to impugn a reputation that has been carefully built up over years, it is vital to consider whether a strong attack on it will actually have much effect, particularly among your peers. "One has to judge the strength of one's own reputation," he says. "Sometimes these are pinpricks and if you sleep on something for 24 hours you will realise that."

Fiona Godlee, editor of the British Medical Journal and chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics, says adopting open peer review is one way to encourage reviewers to behave more professionally. She also stresses the importance for journal editors of asking potential reviewers to state any conflicts of interest.

David Armstrong, reader in medical sociology at King's College London, who sits on a number of grant-giving committees, says such committees keep an eye out for peer reviews that are noticeably more critical than others, especially if they fail to back up the criticisms with cogent arguments.

But he stresses that rivalry is an essential part of solving scientific problems. "Academic rivalry is a rampant part of science and if it didn't happen, we would be very concerned," he says.

And if you are still wondering what to do about your own imminent peer review, you could comfort yourself with the thought that launching an attack based on sound evidence sometimes engenders greater respect. Ask the Corleones.

Further information Committee on Publication Ethics, www.publicationethics.org.uk

OxCHEPS Higher Education Mediation Service, http:///oxcheps.new.ox.ac.uk

TOP TIPS

Decide whether you are an individualist or team-player

Make sure you have people who will support you politically, intellectually and emotionally

Find out about your legal options, but think before using them

Recognise the value of competition

Don't take things personally

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