Homeless in Academe
Last night, current event infiltrated my dream life. I was a young science journalist, and I had occasion to interview a big-time operator named Donald Trump. In this universe, Mr. Trump (or his organization) had, in addition to building hotels, casinos, and golf resorts, also conducted gigantic studies of the human genome. The famous entrepreneur was boastful, but open, friendly, and not uninformed about genomic subjects. He gave me a copy of his genome book, and another book about how to succeed in life. I woke up before I could read it and succeed.

Instead, as a simulacrum of success, I some time ago joined an internet thing called ResearchGate, which is a kind of Facebook for scientists. Periodically, it sends me an Email reading "Congratulations, YOUR RESEARCH IS IN THE SPOTLIGHT!", and alerts me that some particularly obscure old paper of mine has reached 20 citations.

Besides these regular reassurances that the world notices me, after all, ResearchGate keeps track of all citations of my papers, all downloads of them, all my co-authors, the co-authors of my co-authors, etc. etc. . . . To keep track of members' publications, it trawls through computer databases such as PubMed, arXiv, IEEE, RePEC and CiteSeer.

I used to wonder how big-time operators who have big labs, many grants, umpteen students and post-docs, and vast publication lists, etc., could keep track of it all. The answer, of course, is: computer programs. There is one called Symplectic, which organizes everything for its owner. This includes a sub-program labelled "My Publications", in which the owner can choose:

    Once a publication has been claimed,
    the following actions are available on
    the summary level:
    • Upload file
    • Hide publication
    • View full details
    • Add to workspace
    • Make favourite
    • Reject publication

Is "Hide publication" what you do with the ones that never reach even 20 citations? What happens when you click on "Reject publication"? Does the paper, the journal it appeared in, the co-authors, and the co-authors of the co-authors, all disappear like matter colliding with anti-matter?

§   §   §

Needless to say, ResearchGate does the arcane calculations to assess my personal "impact factor". I of course venerate my impact factor, and I had hoped to have it bronzed and mounted on a fine plaque in my University office. Except that it is getting harder and harder for me to visit my University office.

There used to be a parking lot right across the road from my building, but that has been taken over for one of the UW's many current construction projects. So, I found a parking spot behind the Environmental Studies building, from which I could reach my building by a circuitous route. But now the UW has turned that whole area into a tent city for the Seattle homeless.

Nonetheless, I parked there the other day, with my little 2008 Nissan Versa pretending to be a camping tent on wheels. I blended right in, as most of the homeless at the University's own tent city were academics who had failed to keep up with the times. One was a classical zoologist who had continued to collect butterflies without sequencing their DNA. Then there were biologists who, like me, had played around with DNA, but not on a sufficiently industrial scale to retain research grant funding.

There were former humanities professors among the homeless too. One vagrant, pushing along all his books in a shopping cart, was a literature professor who had studied poetry in terms of metre, language, and imagery without once mentioning race, class, or gender. Another, cooking up hobo stew in a tin can, was a a historian who had actually mentioned that human history included many empires beside those ruled by white Europeans.

And, of course, there were all the rest of us, who had just let our impact factors get lower and lower. When not out pan-handling, we like to sit around our campfires behind the Environmental Studies building, comparing notes - - - we would use the EndNote computer program if we had computers - - - to see who had the lowest h-index before being evicted from Academe.

--- Dr. Phage
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