PhD reputation

Yesterday I was hacked for the first time. I should preface this story by saying I know how to use protection, but this phishing attempt slipped right through my defenses. I clicked on the link contained in a message in my Twitter inbox because I trusted the person it came from, without reading the text which accompanied it. The link took me to a page that promptly crashed my browser. I couldn’t be bothered rebooting at 4:58pm, so I closed everything up and got on the tram home.

Fifteen minutes later people started messaging me on Twitter to say that I had sent them a message saying saying “ROFL this pic i found of you had me dying lol” and a dodgy link. I kicked myself, because if I had read the text properly I would never have clicked it. I have over 2000 followers now; that’s a lot of people sending me a ‘please explain’, but there was nothing I could do from my phone. I was forced to watch, helpless, as the spam hit person after person.

The feeling of violation was intense.

I am careful about how I conduct myself on Twitter; I aim at all times to be pleasant and helpful, so I was furious that this lowlife hacker was making me look like a jackass. I was so upset I got off a couple of stops early, ran inside and changed my password before I set off to the school to pick up Thesis Whisperer Jnr. Unfortunately I was angry, rushed and not thinking clearly. I made the new password so long and infinitely subtle that, of course, I forgot it immediately. I had to go through the whole password setting process again the next time I tried to log in, which only made me more angry.

Apart from wondering aloud in words not fit for print about why anyone would spend their time doing something so pointless, this whole incident made me think about the importance of trust and reputation, especially in scholarly life. If you think about it, the whole academic enterprise couldn’t exist without these two ingredients. Sure we pay lip service to being critical and replicating each other’s experiments, but we all know that not enough checking goes on. In fact, some have begun to wonder whether replication is really a way to be sure of anything (read this fascinating New Yorker article if you are interested).

When I was a PhD student I was constantly worried about validity and reliability. I was doing qualitative research and took great pains to try and hook people into helping me analyse my data. I convened workshops to show professionals and scholars my data, but the audience just looked puzzled. I made my research participants watch hours of video of themselves and asked them questions until one of them exclaimed: “I don’t know Inger, you are the researcher! You tell me!”. Realising I had tried everyone’s patience long enough, I wrote papers and presented them at prestigious conferences, hoping that someone in the audience would point out my mistakes. No one ever did. I don’t for a minute believe this was because my work was perfect.

I did all these procedures in a fruitless attempt to be sure I had it ‘right’. I’m sure there are similar symptoms of methods anxiety in all disciplines. After a time I started to get the creeping  suspicion that no one other than me really cared whether or not I got it right – even my supervisor. Privately I wondered whether they all believed me and my findings because I am such a self assured public speaker. I discussed my anxieties with my colleague Dr Robyn Barnacle, who pointed out that the whole PhD endeavour is underpinned by the myth of the solo, heroic, individual researcher. In reality, most of us don’t do our best work alone. Robyn’s explanation helped me to understand that, despite the fact I could never really carry the burden of proof alone, I must carry on through my doubts. The rest of my anxiety, no doubt, stemmed from a bad case of ‘impostor syndrome’, which is said to infect PhD students more than any other group.

But now I am a actually I doctor I wonder if we academics really are as critical as we should be. To be more specific – I wonder if that criticality is aimed in the right direction. After a certain level of competence has been demonstrated, I believe that most academics trust their colleagues to be ethical, upright people who are careful with data. Sure, we look for research design flaws and argue about theories, but no almost no one has the time to check your analysis.  It would too much time and effort, which needs to be spent on our own work. We just assume the analysis has been done properly – and go on to argue furiously about how we would have done it differently.

This is why reputation is so crucial within academic communities; doing a PhD is one way to put money in your reputation ‘bank’. I wonder if being embedded in this culture of trust, makes me – and all academics – hypersensitive about threats to my reputation.  In his interesting book, ‘The upside of irrationality’, Dan Ariely notes that revenge and trust are really two sides of the same coin.  Aiely does a series of experiments which demonstrate that humans will trust people they have never met, as my Twitter followers trust me to post interesting links, but that we have a deeply seated drive for vengeance if that trust is violated. If you believe the evolutionary biologists  (I find the literature compelling, despite the tendency for many of the writers to over simplify) we have a finely tuned ability to detect cheating. Society is orderly, so this theory goes, because most of us will seek to punish betrayal, even if we suffer some personal cost and loss to do so.

This probably explains why the very worst crime you can commit in academia is plagiarism. Words are our currency. When you commit plagiarism you are essentially stealing the building blocks of someone else’s reputation. Luckily for me, many of my Twitter followers quickly realised that words used in the dodgy link did not ‘sound’ like me. I hope this meant that most of them didn’t have to go through the infuriating process of changing all their passwords. If you did – my sincerest apologies and if I ever catch that hacker I will make sure vengeance is mine!

What do you do to protect your reputation? Has it ever been threatened?

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8 thoughts on “PhD reputation

  1. Elizabeth Dumont says:

    Hey Inger – I am a social scientist, and have no idea if it is different for a more ‘hard’ scientist, but to me, anyway, my analysis of the data is underpinned by my ideology, how I see the root cause of the problem I am researching. Someone with a different ideology to mine would interpret, and therefore analyse, the data differently. so that raises the question – how can anyone ‘check’ my analysis of my raw data, founded as it is in my own personal political ideology. Just recently I did a quiz on political ideology on Facebook – this is an American quiz, and I came out as any further to the left and I would be in Stalin’s backyard!!! I am quite offended by this, as I do not see myself as being on the left hand side of the political spectrum, seeing myself as being more centre, verging towards the left or the right on any given issues. – I am someone truly in the middle in that I see faults on both sides of the arguement, and that both sides need to be a part of any solution.

    • ingermewburn says:

      Interesting – that sounds very confronting. I think you are right about ideology. I like using actor network theory because it seems so ideology free … of course it is far from ideology free, but I like the fiction as I find it helps me to work with my doubts more productively.

      Or it could just be that I worry too much.

    • Darren, says:

      Don’t worry too much – by Americian standards the Australian liberal party are Marxists! The location of the ‘center’ is very different in the two countries.

  2. bitter lemon says:

    Regarding password security, a basic rule is that even if you use simple substitutions of numbers etc, it doesn’t take long to crack. IMO around 50% of passwords are simply guessable in 10 mins (You’ll be surprised how many people have “admin” as their wireless router password. Brute force attacks can take care of another 40% passwords in a short time, and the rest take from 1month to 100 years depending on CURRENT computing power available for cheap-cheap. So your passwords are becoming roughly 50% less secure every 18 months. Use a random string of words, forget the numbers.

  3. Dr Anon says:

    I’m in the hard sciences, and there are still certainly issues with students and academics fabricating results and with plagiarism. The problem is that it rarely gets caught until its too late to do much about it. I’ve caught people (both students and someone I know to be a departmental chair from overseas) plagiarizing my work. What do you do when that departmental chair is the chief editor of the journal the plagiarized material is published in? You call them out on it, watch your chances of ever publishing in that journal go up in smoke – which is a problem when it’s the main journal in your sub-field. So my reputation as a young researcher needing to build a track record was threatened by someone else cheating the system if I chose to do anything about it.

    I’ve tried to fight similar issues before and basically been told to suck it up because that’s just how it is. As much as I don’t want to, I’ve given up on believing that the system will support you if you try to take anybody to task over such abuses.

  4. kris says:

    I think there’s a difference between academic reputation and success in academia. The first is about how poeple see you, the second is about how people judge you on your conformity to institutional standards. I’m increasing acknowledging the divergence between the two, and am working towards the former.

    As a qualitative sociologist, I’m a big believer in ‘showing your workings’ as the basis of qualitative rigour – explain how research design, standpoint, interactions, etc shape the data, analysis and interpretations.

    But beyond methods, trying to do the right thing helps a lot. This would seem to be in contrast to Dr Anon’s experiences, above, but I believe my reputation is based not only on the work I’m producing but how I produce it and how I treat people in my professional (and personal) life.

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