A few weeks ago I pondered ways in which professors try to insult each other. Today I feel like adding to the list.
A particular comment that, when phrased in certain ways, can be like a knife to one's academic heart, concerns the extent to which other people have heard of you and are aware of your work; that is, have read your publications.
A particularly direct and impolite way of expressing this sentiment is to say simply: "I've never heard of you."
I used to hear this when I was a young professor, and I do not believe that this phrase is typically recommended for use upon meeting someone for the first time. I suppose it was meant to signal that I must not publish much or that I published only obscure and boring papers that were not worth reading. Even a professor who is not seeking awesome fame as a scientist at least aspires to have some of her/his papers read, so this statement could be quite devastating.
One specific example that I recall was when I had just arrived at my university as a new Assistant Professor. When first introduced to a grad student whose research was in a field closely related to mine, the student said "I've never heard of you." Then, in case this comment was a bit too subtle for me, he added "You must not publish very much."
At that point in my career I had published at least 20 papers, including ones in all the major journals of his (and my) research specialty and also a few in a high-impact general journal that is rather widely read by researchers in and beyond our specific field. Some of the topics of my papers were highly relevant to his research.
I was confident in my publication record, so I said "You must never read any scientific journals. I find that surprising for a senior graduate student. Is that typical of this department?"
In that situation, the student was trying to insult me. Saying "You must not publish very much" to an academic is not just bad manners, it is an insult. In other situations, though, polite variants on "I've never heard of you" can be a way to start a conversation about someone's work, or can be an expression of unfortunate ignorance.
When I was a graduate student, a fellow grad student once asked a Very Famous Scientist "And what do you work on?" when introduced to him at a small meeting. I was amazed that he had not heard of the Very Famous Scientist, whose work (in a field similar to that of the grad student's) over many decades was widely cited. The Very Famous Scientist was extraordinarily polite and answered the student with a list of the main topics he had worked on in recent years. I was impressed by the grace with which he answered the student's question.
It is important for those of us who are old enough to hope that at least some people have heard of us to remember that it can take many years to get to know the names and topics of researchers in a particular discipline. Therefore, if confronted with a polite variation of I've-never-heard-of-you, especially from a student, this should not be taken as an insult.
Even so, I recall another time when I saw from a distance a Very Famous Scientist talking to one of my students at the student's poster at a conference. This scientist was the person in the world whose research was most closely related to my student's work, so I assumed that they were having an interesting discussion. By the time I got there, the VFS had already moved on to other posters, so I asked my student about their discussion. My student said "That guy? Who was he anyway?".
Well.. if my student had remembered the 57 papers by this scientist that we had read and discussed in recent years, or if he had picked up on conversational cues that this person knew a fair amount about the poster topic, he might have had a different conversation with "that guy". As it was, because he didn't recognize the man's name (which is rather distinctive), my student didn't take advantage of the opportunity to have an in-depth discussion with an interesting person with relevant expertise. If I'd gotten there sooner, I could have helped my student connect the dots, but it was entirely reasonable to expect that he would recognize this man's name on his own.
We read the literature so that we learn new things and find out what is going on in Science World, but we also read so that we get to know the people in the field and perhaps have interesting conversations with them at conferences or other scientific gatherings. For those who are not good at remembering names and faces, perhaps it would be advisable to develop a strategy for making connections between research and researchers without resorting to the potentially treacherous "What do you work on?" types of questions.
In the case of the rude grad student who insulted me when I first arrived at my university, imagine my surprise when he contacted me a year or so later to say he had seen my ad for a postdoc and was wondering if he could apply. It was tempting to write back and ask "Who are you?", but I resisted, though I did not hire him; he had only one publication, and it was boring.
12 years ago