Monday, January 04, 2010

Who Are You?

Some colleagues and I recently discussed whether you should agree to write a tenure/promotion letter for someone whose work you don't know particularly well, if at all.

One colleague argued that if you haven't heard of someone and you have never read a paper by them before, you shouldn't write a letter because you will have to say that you don't know the candidate and this will likely be interpreted to mean that they are not visible in their professional community. Also, if you haven't heard of someone in a fairly specialized field, can their research really be any good? And then there's all the work of reading the papers you haven't read before. This colleague refuses to write letters for people whose work is completely unknown to him.

Another argued that if you don't know someone, then you can be objective and your letter might have more weight than that written by the candidate's best friends and collaborators who can write detailed letters from the point of view of people closely involved with the research.

Another agreed, saying that he had recently written a letter for someone whose work he didn't know, and in the process of reading papers by the candidate, realized he should know about this person, whose research he found to be interesting and excellent. Being unaware of someone's work can also be a reflection of the letter writer's level of awareness of the field.

It is important to note that this discussion took place in the context of professors at a research university that values high visibility, international reputation, publication in high impact journals etc. etc. We are expected to be known in our field; hence, our discussion, which may not be relevant to other types of institutions.

The discussion took place among colleagues from a wide variety of STEM fields. I suspect that some of my colleagues' opinions relate in part to how likely it is that you have encountered most others who are working in your specific field of interest, at the very least reading a paper or seeing a conference presentation by the people active in your field. In some fields this is expected, in others perhaps it is less common.

I think it is also important to note that I am not talking about whether a letter writer knows someone personally or not. I am talking about whether you know of someone's work, e.g. through publications, proposal reviews, or conference presentation.

I don't have a strong opinion about the issue based on personal experience because so far I haven't been asked to write a letter for anyone whose work I didn't know at all, though in a few cases I had to delve into the literature quite a bit so that I could write a substantive letter.

There was one case in which I was asked to write a letter for a promotion to professor, and I said no, I didn't have time. In fact, I wasn't familiar with anything this person had written in the past 6+ years. I assumed the candidate had been publishing in another field and I did not have time at that point to do a good job reading an unfamiliar body of literature. In that case, I was only given a few weeks to write the letter, which is not enough time in general and was impossible in that case owing to the coincidence in time with a grant proposal deadline and some travel, so I did not feel too bad about saying no. It turns out that this person hadn't been publishing much, so I am very glad that I said no, especially if I had to answer that pesky question of "Would the candidate be promoted at your institution?" (which is only a fair question if the institutions are truly comparable in academic environment , resources, and expectations).

In general, I think that if I were asked to write a letter for someone whose work I didn't know, I would spend a bit of time poking around to see if my lack of awareness was my own fault or reflected a true lack of visibility by the candidate. In the latter case, I would then have to see if I had time to do justice to a letter by delving into publications etc., and then I would decide whether to accept or decline. I guess you can say that, unlike some of my colleagues, I don't have a philosophy of definitely agreeing or declining based only on the fact of not being aware of the candidate's work.

So, if you are at a major research university and are asked to write a tenure/promotion letter for someone whose work you don't know -- perhaps even someone you have never heard of -- would you write the letter or not?


Hope said...

Being unaware of someone's work can also be a reflection of the letter writer's level of awareness of the field.

Being a grad student, I obviously don’t have firsthand knowledge of these practices. But I just don’t understand what would be so terrible about saying that you’ve never heard of someone and therefore don’t feel comfortable writing a letter. I mean, isn’t this in part what people are trying to assess – how well known is this individual in their research community? If one or two people said they’d never heard of the candidate, why would that necessarily reflect badly on the candidate? As long as others in the community had heard of the person and knew their work well enough to write a letter, what’s the big deal?

Or is it that established profs just can’t bring themselves to admit any kind of ignorance when it comes to the current literature in their field?

This whole tenure-granting process – dept. chairs stacking references in the candidate’s favor; outside recommenders pretending to know a candidate’s work when they’d never heard of the person before – it all just sounds like the biggest sham.

EliRabett said...

If you are asked to write a letter you can always answer after WoSing

Female Genetics Professor said...

Your attitude about this issue is a good one, whereas your colleagues who refuse to write letters about candidates for promotion they don't know are doing their fields a disservice. I'm involved in gathering promotion letters for my department. My large state university requires a certain number of letters from outside reviewers who've never collaborated, mentored, or been mentored by the candidate. It can be very difficult to accumulate these important letters if many potential referees merely toss the requests aside. At least respond to the request indicating whether or not you will be able to provide a letter and if not, why not. It's especially frustrating to get no response at all.

Female Science Professor said...

Hope - It depends on the field whether it is likely or unlikely that the letter writers will have heard of all/most junior people in that field, so there is no point in generalizing about whether it is good or bad to be unknown to your letter writers. In some fields it may be normal to be unfamiliar with the work of others in the same general area; in others, it could indicate very low visibility of the candidate, which could be a problem.

Letter writers are instructed to indicate their degree of interaction and level of knowledge of the candidate. I doubt if (m)any pretend "to know a candidate's work when they've never heard of the person before". Typically, the letter writer would state in the letter "I have never heard of this person before" and then, if they agreed to write a letter, they give their opinion of the candidate's file (papers, CV etc.).

Anonymous said...

I'd take a quick look at the CV. If that revealed the person had done good work of which I should have been aware, and if the timing was reasonable, I'd say yeas. If not, I'd say no, though at some institutions a NO counts against the candidate.

One example illustrates this well. I recently wrote a letter for an assistant professor working in an interdisciplinary area that spans Biology and Physics. When initially asked, I thought they had me mistaken for someone else--how could I write a letter for someone in a Department of Physics and Astronomy? However, a glance at the CV revealed the person was the first author as a postdoc of a paper I knew well, and of which I thought highly. He'd been continuing work in that area, but publishing in biophysics journals. After a Discussion with the Department Chair about what parts of the person's work I could and could not evaluate (he also did other work in different areas), I wrote a quite supportive letter.

Mark P

Pagan Topologist said...

Whether I am aware of someone's work or not typically depends on how closely the person's field of work is related to my own. I doubt that there would be a continuum theory person whose work I was totally unfamiliar with. But other branches of topology...I am not so sure. Fortunately, I have never been asked to write such a letter when I was not at all familiar with the candidate's work. I hope it never happens, but this post is definitely 'food for thought' about how to handle such an eventuality.

John Vidale said...

One way of looking at this:

In order of influence

1. Is this a strong case? (Weak cases require more thought to make the arguments, and less objectivity.)
2. Would I have to do some work to get up to speed, and would the work be useful to my education?
3. Do I have pressing chores more important than this?
4. Do I think my views would otherwise go unrepresented?

Yes, no, no, yes favor writing the letter, and I write for probably 3/4 of the requests - some letters are longer than others.

The overriding factor is that 90+% of tenure cases are approved, and probably 99% of the strong cases, so it rare that writing makes a difference other than for the size of the raise accompanying the promotion and the feedback the person receives.

IMO, if a writer doesn't know the person's work beforehand, and preferably the person, it is unlikely the writer can separate the work from that of advisors, competitors, inspirations from other fields, etc., and will usually write supportive fluff.

Kevin said...

I've pretty much got the same strategy as FSP: I'll write a letter if I'm familiar with the person's work or if the work is in a field interesting enough that I'm willing to read several papers.

There is no way I could be familiar with all the work of people I might be asked to review: I'm in a relatively new interdisciplinary field that has pulled together people from various disparate backgrounds publishing in a huge variety of journals. Even in the tiny niche that is my personal expertise, there are over 200 research groups, and I only know the work of the top dozen labs, if that.

A more difficult problem is what to do about tenure letters for people you know and like, but who have not been very productive.

Incidentally, one bad letter can stop tenure, if the more senior members of the department happen to agree with the bad letter.

Doctor Pion said...

Asked by whom? If it came from someone other than the candidate, I would. They obviously want a truly "outside" letter for the reason FGP states.

I'd hesitate to estimate the odds of not knowing someone's work in my field, but that depends a lot on which country they are in. It is easier to see everyone at a national meeting than at an international one, and there is a big difference between judging someone's work based on papers that carry their name and judging it based on a scientific discussion with them.

But this is a real problem in fields where papers carry hundreds of names and are all identified by the alphabetically lead author. Your question should be a warning to new faculty about the importance of making THEIR role in the science clear to as many people as possible if they want to keep that Good Job they just got.

Unknown said...

I am asked to write numerous promotion/retention letters (often >15) every year, usually in the Fall. If the chair of the tenure/promotion committee emails me in advance to ask whether I am willing/able to write a letter, I am happy to put it on my schedule. (I am rarely asked to write a letter for someone with whom I am unfamiliar). Recently, I have begun to receive tenure/promotion packets in the mail without any prior inquiry requesting a letter (usually with a deadline 2-3 weeks in the future). Often these letter are for deserving individuals and I would be happy to provide a letter. However, the late notice and lack of a prior request makes it impossible to do so. In these cases, it can be detrimental to the candidate under consideration. Who are these thoughtless committee chairs who are too lazy or disorganized to send out requests well in advance, ensuring that the letter provider makes a decision based on knowledge of the candidate, rather than personal time constraints? In these cases, I am tempted to write a less-than-glowing letter for the committee chair and send it back. If only I had the time....

EliRabett said...

fooled ya, better write that letter, otherwise your not writing is going to be held against the candidate. Sending you the package without asking is a passive aggressive way of shafting the candidate