Nov 052021

Before and after the recent German elections, I was invited to a number of virtual roundtables, which was good clean fun. One of them was hosted by an institution in the US and implied an unexpected “small honorarium” of 200 dollars.

So far so good. I promptly forgot about the money until a couple of weeks later, when I got an email from a stateside university administrator. Which was also when the real fun started.

I can say with confidence and without hyperbole that I have by now spent more time filling in forms than I spent on the panel. Much of the information that I have provided is redundant (I have entered my address and banking details in at least three different places). And there is always another form. Almost as if this was Germany or some other central European country (minus the physical stamps and the fax machines).

Note to European Politics people: if Uncle Sam offers a
Uncle Sam needs you more than you need his money

There was the original rather straightforward form, but then came the rather ominous tax form. I have filled in a supplier form (because I’m apparently a sort of freelancer), but also a payroll form (am I Schrödinger’s academic?). The latter is particularly painful, because I need to give details on my US immigration history and visa status. For a person that has not migrated to the US, has in fact not been in the US in a while but merely attended a virtual talk, that seems a little excessive.

Then there are the emails. Because my conversation with the administrator is peppered with obscure links, requests for information, and references to bank transfer, my email program’s anti-phishing algorithms are working in overdrive. Therefore, each query and clarification goes right to the spam folder.

From past experience I’m also sure that the banks on both sides of the Atlantic will each take a substantial cut as compensation for their non-existent troubles and mediocre services. And that’s after the US tax man has deducted his share. Once the German tax man chimes in, I’ll be out of pocket.

So if you ever receive an email containing the dreaded line “Does your bank accept American cheques?” (to which the canonical answer is “obviously not”), delete it immediately and ignore all follow-ups.

Sep 022021

Not a huge fan of Google/Alphabet (the company), but I really like Google Scholar. It brings a certain kind of democratisation to science. Unlike commercial giants Web of Science/Clarivate and Scopus/Elsevier (vade retro satanas!), access is free (yes I know, we pay with our data). Moreover, it covers a much wider range of sources than just elite journals, and it happily points one towards pre-prints, institutional repositories and other ungated sources of research.

And Google Scholar (being an aspect of the all-knowing if not all-loving Google Deity) has a knack for uncovering stuff that could (or should) interest me. Occasionally, I get an email suggesting that I should “follow” colleagues X or Y, i.e. get updates about their new publications. As one would expect from Google, these suggestions are uncannily accurate.

Digital geese and real graves 2
Photo by hobbyknipse on Pixabay

A couple of days ago, I received one such recommendation that was also accurate, but uncanny in a completely different way. In this specific case, I’m sure that there will be no stream of new publications that I could follow, because the colleague in question died a couple of months ago, quite young and unexpectedly.

Which, for one morbid moment, made me think of the digital clutter/legacies that we are accumulating every day: the preprints, working papers, published work in journals and ebooks, not to mention the podcasts, video footage of lectures, blogposts (sic!) and everything we are posting on social media. That much of this will be around after our demise, at least for a time, is of course normal. Science must be cumulative, what with the standing on shoulders of giants and all that. What I had not fully appreciated up to that moment is that algorithms will happily continue to harvest our surviving digital twins, whether they are twitter handles or Google Scholar profiles, sending updates about us to other persons (who might be dead as well) until their parent companies go bust or lose interest in that specific service. Goose over my grave etc.

Feb 202021

How it started

It’s no secret that Mainz is a carnival hot spot. Shrove Monday, the day of the biggest parade and the most frantic celebrations, is a de facto public holiday in the city. But the de facto bit is important here: the city can’t make it a proper holiday, yet nobody who can possibly avoid it is working, so (collective) bargaining is important in a very practical sense.

At Mainz U, the workers’ representatives and the leadership must have come to an Agreement shortly after the war: on Shrove Monday, food outlets, libraries, departments, and central offices always were and always will be officially geschlossen, but there is a price. Until some years ago, we used to get reminders (on the back of our payslips) of the Arrangement: during an (extended) period of Lent, employees were supposed  to work exactly 12 extra minutes per day to make up for the lost Monday. 17 minutes if you happened to be a Beamter (because of the slightly longer working week).

How it is going

Academics (who can work almost everywhere, have their own keys to the building, and are not known for their great sense of humour) used to laugh about it. Some even came in on Shrove Monday (if they could get past the hordes of drunk revellers filling the streets). But for the admin staff and even more so for the porters, janitors, or lab technicians, whose schedules were even more rigid than they are today, the Arrangement must have been a real achievement.

In the many years since the Arrangement was reached, working time has become more flexible for all employees. The 12-minutes-per-day rule was quietly dropped in accordance with that. Even working from home, an elusive privilege for many, has become the new normal, thanks to the pandemic.

And so you might think that the Arrangement, which decades ago brought some flexibility, could be handled in a flexible way this year. After all, there were no celebrations, hence no social pressure to be anywhere in particular.

Even in a pandemic, carnival is serious business
Even in a pandemic, carnival is serious business

But you would be very wrong. Just in time, the leadership reminded us that JGU observes Shrove Monday, and working from home is verboten on this very special day (which, in the absence of a parade or other distractions, had severe personal consequences for me). Explaining how this makes perfect sense from a bureaucratic/neo-corporatist point of view (I think it does) is left as an exercise to the reader.

Feb 062013
After many months of public and internal debates and allegations of plagiarism, the council of the Faculty of Philosophy (here’s a nice name!) at the University of Düsseldorf has voted to strip Federal Education Minister Annette Schavan of her doctorate, a mere three decades after it had been awarded in the first place. Obviously, they acted under enormous political pressure from many sides, and I’m very happy to sit on a different faculty board at a different university.

The proceedings were particularly difficult because a lengthy internal memo by the chair of the PhD board that condemned the thesis had been leaked to the press. Moreover, the faculty was criticised for relying too much on the opinion of said chair, who – unlike Schavan – is not an educationist, and for not bringing in external experts. Today, a prominent member of Schavan’s party deemed the university’s ruling “preliminary” (because Schavan can and will take the university to court) and “inappropriate” (because scientists are apparently not competent to make judgements on plagiarism). Such statements show how much respect politicians hold for science <irony off>.

The university, on the other hand, kept its cool and put a legal opinion  (in German) on its website, which states that they have done more or less the right thing.  It’s a long read, but very instructive for academics who might find themselves in a similar pickle as those poor souls at Düsseldorf.

While the memo itself is not (officially) public, the website which brought the matter to the attention of the public is still online. From what I have seen, I get the impression that the author did indeed intend to plagiarise in more than a few instances. Schavan’s lawyers will challenge this opinion, but it will be more than a few months before a court rules on the matter, so the more immediate question is: Can she cling on to her job?

While the chancellor “trusts” Schavan, and while she still has the support of many in her party, the FDP has started making funny noises, and the opposition is calling on Schavan to step down. The minister will soon return from a trip to South Africa and is booked for a chat with Merkel on Friday. The smart money is on a resignation on Monday: It’s difficult to conceive of a federal  Education minister whose Alma Mater deems her a fraud. Given the ever more prominent role in the funding of universities that the federation has played in recent years, this will not work.

The wider question is of course why so many German politicians pursue doctorates, sometimes with dubious means. If/when she resigns, Shavan will be the second cabinet minister Merkel loses over a plagiarised PhD (the first being former defence minister zu Guttenberg). Other casualties include Silvana Koch-Mehrin and Jorgo Chatzimarkakis (both FDP and members of the EP), and various politicians working at the Länder-level.

The simple answer to that question is that a PhD – any PhD –  furthers their career. In some branches of the public administration (as well as in some research-driven companies), a doctorate  is a pre-requisite for managerial positions –  sometimes rightfully so, sometimes not. More generally,  Germans see academic titles as a (poor) substitute for the aristocratic titles that we abolished in 1919. Many believe (erroneously) that the doctorate becomes part of a person’s name. Heck, they probably think it becomes hereditary. And so we are stuck with a considerable number of mediocre students who have neither talent nor temperament for serious research but long for academic ennoblement. We should therefore be much more selective in admitting PhD students.