Thursday, December 08, 2011

Academic Parasite

When I wrote the title above, I thought to myself "Wait, I must have used that title before." In fact, a quick search of the archives shows that I have done exactly two (2) posts that contain the word parasite, but never have I used this title even though one of the two (2) previous posts uses the term in the same context I will use it today.

So that's pretty exciting (for me), but what does it mean? That's what I am going to discuss today: what does it mean to be an academic Parasite?

I can remember hearing this term twice: once a very long time ago, and once this week. There may well have been others, but they have not been stored in my long-term memory compartments.

The first time I heard it, I was a grad student and the speaker was an old and supposedly distinguished professor who hated most people, so it wasn't a surprise to hear him insult someone. Typically, that someone was me, but in this case, that someone was a perky-but-clueless visiting graduate student who had come to prostrate himself before The Great Man and glean little bits of wisdom. They met in the GM's office for an hour or so, and then the grad student came to my office to chat.

He said "We had a really great discussion!" (unlikely: The GM did not "discuss"; he lectured)

And "I think he really likes me!" Well, he did have a few acolytes, all male, who worshiped him, named their children after him etc., but I wasn't sure... and then:

The phone rang. It was The GM, wanting to talk to me. "Is THAT PARASITE still there?" he screamed into the phone. (etc.)

The second time, in a conversation this week, a professor who is a much nicer person than The GM asked me if I had ever worked with a particular individual. I said, without explanation "I used to, but not for quite a long time now." He laughed and said "Good! He's a PARASITE!" He's not wrong.. there are specific reasons I no longer work with that person.

But what does it mean?Are there different types of Academic Parasites? Do we need to classify them?

Of the two instances mentioned here, the first one was just a student asking a professor for advice, information, anything that would help him (the student) with his dissertation research. The GM's response was clearly extreme (it was a student asking for help!).

The second instance involves interactions among professors who are collaborators. In some cases, this distinction of student-professor vs. professor-professor interaction is important; in others, not. (<-- important note: That link is to a 2006 post, when things were different.)

I will propose a simple definition, for starters:

Someone who takes and uses the research ideas and/or results of others to advance their own research/career but doesn't give back, share, or cite appropriately = parasite.

But how do we know when someone has crossed a line between a somewhat unequal collaborative situation (this is not unusual) and a parasitic arrangement? Is a parasite by definition engaged in unethical behavior? That is, does the "taking" always = "stealing" (ideas, results)?

I think that if the taking/stealing involves people who are not collaborators, and the taking/stealing involves information from proposals or other unpublished work, the person in question is worse than a parasite, and there are probably more appropriate words. If, however, someone takes ideas from published work and then repackages them as their own (because they don't have any of their own), they are a weasly parasite.

If someone takes ideas and data from collaborators, then it is a bit more ambiguous. If someone is content to do (essentially) nothing but have their name put on papers as co-author, they are a passive parasite. If, however, they do (essentially) nothing and put their name on papers (but not yours or your students), then they are a more virulent and dastardly variety: the evil parasite.

This is not a very pleasant topic, but, in the course of a career, we encounter all kinds of people. Fortunately for me, the parasites have been few and far between, so my classification scheme (and/or my imagination) is rather limited. 


Anonymous said...

So, what does one do with weasly parasites? Especially when they are still talking about your (past, published without his name on it) work as if it was his own. I've been trying to figure this out for years.

Anyone have any experience?

Alex said...

an old and supposedly distinguished professor who hated most people, so it wasn't a surprise to hear him insult someone.

This could be a former professor of mine, especially given that:

Well, he did have a few acolytes, all male, who worshiped him

I am indeed such an acolyte! I don't know if we're talking about the same guy, but my guy acquired taste. I still visit him now and then to receive his lectures.

Like I said, he's an acquired taste.

Female Science Professor said...

Alex, unless you visit a dead guy for those lectures, it's a different person.

The (ex)person to whom I referred physically abused and harassed women. This was a major barrier to our thinking of him as a mentor.

Anonymous said...

I know someone who has used being a parasite as his primary career advancement mode and somehow it works for him. Typically he will latch on to someone, they will realize at some points that he is a useless leech and worse, they eject him (and from then on hate his guts), and then somehow he finds a new person or group. He maintains a certain level of visibility by organizing conferences and sessions, editing special issues for non-selective journals etc. etc., so his name is fairly well known. It is mystifying to those who have already worked with him why anyone else would, and it is particularly troubling when he latches on to a promising young scientist. Will he eventually run out of people to feed off of? It doesn't look like he will.

SA said...

We were having a similar discussion in our lab just the other day. A few people in the group work on a particular organ system, and there are regularly scheduled meetings with other people in our institute who work on the same thing. Some time ago, my PI made the decision to stop inviting one of these other groups because the members were acting as parasites - taking ideas from us but not contributing anything useful back.

This situation seems distinct from the ones FSP mentioned because I don't think the lack of reciprocity is due to malice or laziness on the other group's part; they just don't have approaches or novel ideas that we have been able to utilize. Our work is quite broad and generally seen as "sexy", and theirs is quite specific to an area we are not hugely interested in. Personally, I would have been more than OK to keep inviting them to the meetings; sometimes in life you just can't pay back the people who have helped you, and that's OK, as long as you make an effort to pay it forward at some point in the future.

Alex said...

Definitely a different guy. Mine is still alive and kicking.

And not evil like your guy was. Just...unique.

Anonymous said...

I have experienced one of these parasites first-hand and was fortunate to escape relatively unscathed. Several of my friends and acquaintances have also been parasitized by well-established senior scientists. In every example, the parasite victim was a junior colleague (student, postdoc, etc.) who was female. I wonder if this is an actual trend, or if my view is skewed because more of my friends are female than male. Or maybe men are less likely to discuss being parasitized. Can anyone chime in on whether parasites are more likely to latch onto females than males? Are women somehow more likely to let someone take credit for their work, insist on unearned authorship, or pirate proposal ideas?

Anonymous1 said...

Lots of anonymity on this thread.

My parasite sounds like Anonymous2's. And it's true that in my case, others who have contacted me with similar experiences involving him have all been women.

Anonymous said...

So wait, is the only difference between the "passive parasite" and "evil parasite" whether they are on your/your student's paper(s) or not? I don't get it...

Andrea said...

I think a key attribute to define someone as a parasite is that it s a continuing pattern of behavior - not a one time or one relationship event.

Anonymous said...

My parasite suggested that we write a review paper together. Great! I read up a bunch and summarize the literature, develop a framework for the paper, and meet to talk. "Oh yes I hadn't thought of it quite like that" oh but actually the other review I'm working on with FAMOUS MAN overlaps too much so I don't think we should proceed. Ok, that can happen when parallel papers converge. Four months later there's the framework and the lit cited in their paper. Convergence? Maybe. Appropriation? Pretty likely. No, we are no longer collaborators.

Anonymous said...

What about people who do give back, but live off of other people's ideas? It's a fairly common career mode for people with zero creativity or imagination basically do the grunt work in collaboration with others, and end up being first author on the publications, even though co-I's directed all the science -- basically acting as uncreative grad students for their entire career. I would call these people leeches. Leeches are viewed as a beneficial parasite by some. But they're still parasites because they live off of others.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous 07:10

I don't know the answer and like most people, I can only provide anecdotal evidence... but I'm male and it happened to me more than once, both from more junior and more senior people and both from men and women. I really don't see a trend either way.

Anonymous said...

Something "parasitic" happened to me recently. In my lab, we're working with particular applications. I was short on students so I asked a professor in another department who had a student who could complement my other students abilities. I told him that until I found a permanent student that I would like to support one of his students for about 6 months to work on a problem.

His student was developing a particular technique. We helped him figure out how to apply it to our problem and helped him acquire the data, etc. We published that in a journal. After 6 months, the advisor wanted to know if I would continue to support the student and I said that I had found the permanent person now but this collaboration was great and hoped we could continue collaborating (without my $$).

P.S. His student continued on the project using another dataset that we had massaged into a form that we could use (that we gave him right as he transitioned back into his primary advisor's lab.. a "lets collaborate more"). I and the student that helped him was not on the paper.

I confronted him and he basically said "well... you didn't pay for his work on that". And acted like it was ok to just take our work and publish, because it was his money now. NOT ONLY THAT but he didn't reference our previous work. I asked him that at the very least that that paper reference our previous work on applying this technique to this kind of data. And he didn't do that.

I took this as a minor setback and know not to ever trust this guy again.

Pagan Topologist said...

I have been aware of collaborations where one person does all the scientific work and the other writes things up in an understandable way and deals with editors and reviewer reports. Some people have called this a parasitic relationship, but it seems symbiotic to me. The person doing the scientific work did not like writing and was not terribly good at it. The other person could understand the work, and explain it well in writing, but rarely if ever contributed to it in any substantive way.

I think it is best to be cautious in terming someone parasitic unless you yourself feel like a victim of such.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:57, I wouldn't quite think of these people as so harmful, particularly if they are technically competent. In fact I wish I had a couple of people like that at hand, who would take my ideas, output a nicely finished paper and put both our names on it.

Tabbers said...

I've pointed my wife to this blog; she is FemaleMathsProfessor and most of what you've written is erily familiar.

Old Biddy said...

I've mainly had experience with weasly parasites. I used to be in industry at a small company and in conjunction with my coworkers, developed some new and interesting systems, which were patented and published and then commercialized by a big company. Typically, we only had permission to do one publication per system. There have been a very large number of copycat weasels that come out of the woodwork and publish lots of papers rediscovering the less-interesting systems in the paptents and barely cite the original work.
There was a passive academic weasel who got involved in a small part of the original work at the very end but now people assumed he discovered them.
I get my revenge since I get sent most of the copycat papers to review.

Anonymous said...

Re "leeches": Then how about "good parasites" instead? Think of all the excellent parasites in your stomach. That gives us evil, weasely, passive, and good parasites.

Kea said...

if ... the taking/stealing involves information from proposals or other unpublished work, the person in question is worse than a parasite, and there are probably more appropriate words.

Whether worse or not really depends upon specifics. As a woman in a still exclusively male field, almost 100% of people have exhibited what you would call parasitic behaviour. Many of them will openly admit it, giving excuses like, 'oh, there is no need to cite personal online stuff', or something. Evidently, scientists today were never taught the ethics of citing all one's sources. The greed and corruption and discrimination is so entrenched that I think many of them don't even know they are doing it, particularly the misogynist ones. When it is an axiom of existence that Misfit A cannot possibly have done XXX, it is logically impossible to have stolen their ideas, no?

A better word for the young dude you mention is Sychophant. Ethically, I guess these people are not as bad, they just have the usual neurotypical weaknesses.

Anonymous said...

We have an academic parasite in our department. Somehow this lady managed to get a PhD from a pretty good school, yet she knows jack about anything, including the topic she wrote her dissertation on! She manages to get her name on papers (via schmoozing), though I've heard from quite a few former *collaborators* that she contributes nothing to any research, though she does help write the actual papers (e.g., editing the abstract). She does nothing, but gets published.

Her weak research record might be overlooked if she were a good instructor, BUT SHE'S NOT! Her student evaluation scores are far below the department average.

Sadly, she's getting tenure-track job offers from other schools. I guess being a rare female in the field is enough to make her employable.

Sadly, her presence in the field only hurts those of us women who actually *do* work. Her laziness and ineptitude only serves to reinforce the stereotype that women aren't cut out for research like men are...

Anonymous said...

You said "Academic Parasite" the first thought I had was "Old professors who are occupying desperately needed lab and office space but are not actively pursuing research, have no research groups, are not providing any value or function to the department, and just won't leave even though they are technically retired."

Doctor Pion said...

I had dealings with one, but I was fortunate to have been warned in advance that he would steal anything from a copy of a talk, particularly one containing unpublished calculations, he was given. As a result, I only gave him something that I didn't much mind was going to be used without attribution.

But God help us all if there had been cell-phone cameras back then!

Anonymous said...

When I saw the title of this post, I was hoping you were going to talk about a certain breed of senior professor. These types do little more than provide funding for projects, rubber-stamping student papers, and absorbing credit for work done by the bright young minds in their labs. I think there are quite a few like this who seem to survive by coasting on their fame.

Anonymous said...

"When I saw the title of this post, I was hoping you were going to talk about a certain breed of senior professor. These types do little more than provide funding for projects, rubber-stamping student papers, and absorbing credit for work done by the bright young minds in their labs. "

I must admit as a PI who writes grants, the idea that "providing funding" has no value makes me wonder if I should continue to write RO1's. My life would be easier if I stopped, but there'd be quite a few grad students and postdocs who'd have to find other employment.....

Mark P

Anonymous said...

I am not trying to be arrogant but due to my literary skills I am not quite in the right crowd and despite being an early stage researcher I seemed to be doing a lot of teaching to other, more senior, colleagues. So much so that most of the time I'm trying to find a break I ended up solving their problems and not getting credited for it. I didn't mind so much at first but after a while I was fed up and bored with those 'interactions' and now I'm getting complaints for being non-collaborative. You just can't win either way. Parasites are here to stay....

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous 12/08/2011 10:55:00 PM:

You sound like a woman from my school. If this woman hasn't been parasitic to you -- how can you judge? If she is truly parasitic, people will end up not wanting to collaborate with her, and she will not getting job offers. I don't care what a social butterfly she is -- it only goes so far in academia. So, there must be a part of the story you're leaving out here.

I think you're feeling insecure and feel like you have to put her down because you don't put forth to make the connections and offer ideas that she does.

I deeply regret that you have to put other women "down" in order to puff your ego. I guess I have had plenty women in my department who thought I was incapable when I first came -- and now that I proved myself, they don't have much to say (probably because to them, I've only done well because Im-a-woman... *rolls eyes*). Well, I have one thing to say to them.. Shame on you.

Do good work -- don't be so judgmental.

Anonymous said...

Most of these posts are by established scientists.

I am a freelancer who has faced a lot of trouble in trying to put my work across in the standard way such that the journals will accept.

My experiments and work satisfy me enough and I dont really ask for more but, when my friends and former batchmates ask me questions, I cannot help but answer.

Sometimes this helps them formulate big ideas and they publish papers that i feel i deserve some credit in. I have no PhD so i cannot really say anything to them.

My work i feel should be its own reward but somehow it leaves me feeling a little sour.