Shhhh. Be very quiet. I'm hunting rabbits. What? No, that isn't right. Sorry, I was dreaming that I was Elmer Fudd (if you don't know who Elmer Fudd is, he is the nemesis of Bugs Bunny, and famously co-starred in What's Opera, Doc? – widely considered to be one of the greatest comedic feats of animation ever created. Written and animated by the great Chuck Jones. Who also created the Road Runner and Coyote series. If all of this is new to you, stop reading this immediately and hunt these down. But of course, this has nothing to do with what I'm planning to talk about. “Really, Mole?” you say. Yes, really, but do watch out for the giant Acme anvil plummeting towards you).
Anyway, shhhhh. People are quietly quitting.
This concept of ‘quiet quitting’ is happening all around us. It came to attention last year when an engineer named Zaid Kahn posted that quiet quitting is “where you're not outright quitting your job, but you're quitting the idea of going above and beyond. You're still performing your duties, but you're no longer subscribing to the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life.” Since then, there is ongoing debate about whether this is a good or a bad thing, but nobody seems to be saying that it isn't happening.
Some folks can't quietly quit. I have a friend who does sound editing for major motion pictures; he told me that if he ‘quietly quits’ it is the same thing as quitting – he isn't going to get jobs to work on.
But is ‘quietly quitting’ happening in this thing we do, this biomedical research thing? (Of course, you might not do biomedical research; maybe you've chosen to pick up this journal instead of doing whatever it is that you are supposed to be doing. If that is the case, maybe you don't understand this whole idea of ‘quietly quitting’ to improve your quality of life. Go for a walk, or watch ‘What's Opera, Doc?’ It's, um, Wagnerian.) I think that maybe this is happening. Some of us, and maybe many of us, from graduate students to tenured faculty and everyone in between, seem to be opting out of the extra hours and effort that doing what we do entails. I'm not talking about taking some ‘quality time’ (whatever ‘quality’ means in this context), but to paraphrase Mr. Kahn, subscribing to the idea that ‘science is my life’ is increasingly unpopular. For example, I have heard that to tout one's recent publication in the Twizzleverse is frowned upon; apparently, if you publish an exciting new finding you should keep your head down and hope that somebody else notices (upon which you should apologize for doing so and suggest that it was an accident. But even then, this then becomes a humblebrag, which could be worse. I'm not entirely sure what a humblebrag is, but it is fun to say. Humblebrag. Okay, I'll stop. Humblebrag. Now, I'll stop).
This isn't really a new thing. Years ago I was severely castigated at a meeting for working too hard. I didn't understand that a meaningful life requires that I spend all my afternoons in a café, drinking chartreuse and discussing Proust (or something like that – okay, my castigator was French, so I'm paraphrasing). I admit, I thought about it for several milliseconds. And my reproachful colleague was never heard from again (at least, no one I know has seen him. I'm sure he's around, somewhere).
Here's the thing. We can quietly quit doing science, stop striving to take our research to the next level, stop working so hard to discover fundamental new principles, but while that might sound relaxing, I'm not convinced that this is something any of us should want to do. I mean, really, there are much easier ways to stop pushing our research forward, like finding something else to do for a living. I don't know about you, but I didn't get into this for the dollars (euros, RMBs, reals, semolians). I did it, and still do, to get to discover stuff. And yeh, it's my life. It gets me up in the morning (and often late at night), it consumes my days, it constitutes the bulk of my reading, and I don't think I'm going to stop. I think about science all the time, and I love to interact with other scientists who similarly think about science (not just my science). I'm not sure that I want to spend my time thinking about something else (except that I do need to think about doing my laundry at some point).
But on the other hand, do I really need to spend my weekends, early mornings, late nights, basically all my ‘free’ time addressing myriad criticisms by random reviewers to try to get our work into the ‘best’ journals? Maybe I can quietly quit doing that. There are so many places to publish, and some of them will let me publish even if I don't want to address reviewers' comments. Hey, there are even journals where I pay the money and they'll just publish it without a review (okay, not ‘publish’ really, but put it up on their website). Or better still, I can post our work to a preprint server for free and move on.
Maybe I can do that. But that would be horrifically unfair to the Molets, who depend on these publications to get a position (where they will similarly struggle to get their work into the ‘best’ journals). When I say best, I generally mean ‘someplace where others are likely to read it, and ideally present it in journal clubs.’ Those who would like to someday be independent investigators, running their own shows, have to publish their work, and they will compete with other applicants who have done similarly. Until we find another way (if there is one) to gauge potential ‘success’ of our faculty and faculty applicants, this will be the way things will stay (I, for one, do not hold with substituting ‘number of followers’ for quality publications, but then, I'm an old guy – and I don't have followers as far as I know).
Of course, some of the Molets will not go this course; they may decide to go into industry or some other science-related job, and that's fine. But even in such jobs, their publication records follow them, giving them flexibility to move to other positions, and yes, even some status within their positions. The fact is, our publications are our ‘product’; they are how we disseminate our findings. Yes, I know, some of you will assert that experimental results are what we produce; that's also true, but if we do not effectively communicate them in a way that is accessible to the community, these results will be lost in a very large ocean of information. At least where I live, it is still publish or perish (‘perish,’ while being nicely alliterative, is a poor choice here. We should say ‘publish or take that lucrative job as a chief scientific officer in a biotech start up.’ Hardly perishing).
I know that nobody wants to hear this. We should simply report our findings as they come, when and if we are confident of the conclusions. We should do what we do at our own pace, without worrying about competition or recognition. Now and then we should make our findings public when time permits. There are so many other things we would rather do. Watch cat videos. Practice bounce juggling (have you seen this? It's amazing). Learn to work the saxophone. I play just what I feel. Drink scotch whisky, all night long, and die behind the wheel (sorry, I got distracted, I don't want to do that. That was Deacon Blues by Steely Dan, maybe Donald Fagen wants to do that). Just stop trying so hard. We are sick and tired of revising our papers in hope of getting it into the ‘best’ journal, sometimes for months (or years), only to be told to try our luck elsewhere (and start the process again). If we all lower the bar, we can all take things a little more easily.
But this dream of taking things more easily might just not be a good career move. There will always be competition in science because there will always be people who are passionately pursuing their goals (which could also be ours), and once they communicate their findings, our efforts, such as they are, will not result in the sort of product we are paid to produce. Because we are paid to do this (thankfully – I don't know what I would do if I wasn't paid to do this. Write? Look, you know how bad I am at this – which is why you're reading this for free). And we are evaluated, all the time, on what we produce with the relatively large amounts of money we are given by governments and foundations (‘relatively’ is the key here; quite a lot compared to what it costs to run a coffee shop, pitifully little compared to the cost of, say, a Tomahawk cruise missile).
But doing research is not the only thing that takes up my days. I also review grants and papers. A lot. Maybe you do as well. And yet again, I think that many of us are quietly quitting this aspect of what we do. I have noticed in the past year that journal editors are asking five or more scientists for every one who agrees to review a paper. I have noticed that agencies that support research grants are digging deeper and deeper to find someone to review grants for them. And meanwhile, we are complaining, loudly, about the quality of the review process, while often quietly quitting doing this important job, competently and with urgency, for others. As the cartoonist Walt Kelly once famously said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
If you have read this far, you are probably thinking, “Hey Mole, all you are saying is that quietly quitting what we do is a bad thing. I mean, WTF, Boomer. I deserve to have a life.” But I'm not saying that. I know that many of you reading this are underpaid, overworked, and do not have the opportunity to even do the sort of research you signed up for. But listen, it isn't ‘quietly quitting’ to have a hobby you enjoy, get together with friends, read a book, or binge watch The Mandalorian (I mean, who doesn't love Baby Yoda? Sorry, I mean Grogu). It isn't quietly quitting to have a life. It isn't quietly quitting to ask for better pay, better work conditions, and more respect for our contributions. But it is quietly quitting biomedical research to stop striving to do our very best. And that includes contributing to the entire enterprise, not only our own work. It includes thinking hard about science. It includes reviewing grants and papers. And it includes doing these things the best that we can.
I am sure that a lot of this relates to the Terrible Pandemic, during which many of us were simply unable to do the best work we are capable of (‘of which we are capable,’ sorry). And many of us liked having time to do other things. Maybe we are still easing into the habit of giving our all to what we do. At least, some of us are. But many others don't seem to be. Maybe we'll adapt to this new state of things, lowering the bar for ourselves and others, or maybe our human desire to stand out, to contribute, to be recognized for being the best we can be, will win out, and those who quietly quit will end up actually quitting. We'll see.
I, for one, don't plan to quit.