Why Are Academics So Nasty?

Late last year I submitted a book proposal to a prestigious academic publisher. Last week I was sent a reader’s report on the proposal that is so vicious in tone and crushing in intent that, after recovering from the shock, I began to wonder why this kind of thing is so rife in the academic world.

I know I am not the first to experience the sting of a spiteful, pompous or dismissive review of a journal submission or book proposal; in fact quite a few young academics are so traumatised by those assaults that they soon leave universities for work cultures less malicious.

So what did he (to me the voice of the report sounds male) write? The commentary is peppered with gratuitous slights and insults – “whatever that means”, “as if these were profound insights”, “derivative of the work of others”, “hardly a claim to fame”, “he is blissfully unaware”, “posing as the ultimate insider” – before closing off with an assessment of the author notable for its sheer nastiness:

“The author seems to perform well in public talks where, in the role of pundit, he raises important questions, but tends to do so repetitively. It soon becomes apparent that he has no expertise or depth of expertise of his own. He has been a visiting scholar or consultant for most of his career, a runner up to most major prizes.”

As a novice academic 30 years ago I was sent referees’ reports on papers I’d submitted to journals similar in tone to this, though without the personal attack. The message I took from them was that I was an incompetent interloper who could not cut it in the university world.

Most young academics emerging from the cocoon of doctoral seclusion find themselves in an environment that is fiercely competitive, one dominated by the obligation to accumulate publication points. If they aren’t getting enough runs on the board the year ticks over like a clock of doom. Thinkers whose interests require extended reflection simply cannot compete, so those who think big thoughts are driven out of the system. If they are inclined to challenge orthodoxies they soon succumb to “intellectual prostitution” or get out.

For those at the start of a career, if a paper into which they’ve put their best ideas and of which they feel proud is savaged by a referee – whose anonymity turns them into the one who speaks for the academy as a whole – those two or three pages can sit under a pile of papers as a silent torment, a daily reminder that they are a failure or a fraud. It is cold comfort to learn that some of the most successful academics harbour long-standing resentments over ill-tempered knock-backs early in their careers.

As a young academic in seminars I watched senior faculty engage in brutal put-downs of junior colleagues, and even senior ones. Making a colleague appear foolish was admired and feared. In this environment I formed the view that I was not clever enough to aspire to be an academic (yes, I know, some will think that’s still an accurate assessment) and soon left the university.

Having returned to the academy after many years, I am now in the lucky position of being able to get my ideas published in books – although, as this commentary shows, there are no guarantees – so I rarely submit articles to journals. On the odd occasion that I do, I have received carping reports that leave me unwilling to carry out the “major revisions” demanded.

The vicious review becomes a dirty secret. Whereas in recent times many have gone public with their anguish over online bullying and trolling, the recipient of a venomous rejection is reluctant to publicise it. Why amplify the reputational damage? Why expose one’s weakness to one’s colleagues and competitors? A few brave souls have gone public, such as here and here, and one has opined: “Learning how to deal with bullies is, alas, another aspect of succeeding in academia.”

But should the possession of a rhino’s hide be a sine qua non for a university job? And do those who survive the early years absorb and reproduce the toxic jealousies and cut-throat culture? The nastiness seems to grow from the all-consuming drive to publish, and to get into print at the expense of others. We are trained to think critically about our colleagues’ work in order to preserve the integrity and quality of the disciplines, and that’s a good thing; but criticizing a paper need not become crushing an opponent.

Before finishing let me make a confession and ask permission for a little payback. I confess that, looking back, there have been times when as a referee or reviewer I have expressed my opinions more harshly than I should have. And the payback? As my reader pissed on me from his lofty Ivy League tower, I could not help noticing that his claims to greater knowledge looked suspicious. Sure enough, within a couple of minutes I found that a large chuck of his report was cut and pasted from a website on the Internet.

So what did I do in response to the mauling? I withdrew my proposal from the publisher. Apart from taking offence, it seemed to me that it would be a painful ordeal to have a book contract with a publishing house that relies for advice on academics as splenetic as my reader. Of course, in light of the report’s content, the odds are that I have simply preempted a rejection.


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