Kindness – that simple word

Quote taken from an interview with Brian Sibley, broadcast by the BBC World Service in November 1988.

A few days ago I wrote a 500 word essay about what is wrong with peer review and how we could possibly change it. I really shouldn’t be telling you all this, because I wrote it as part of the PLOS Early Career Research Travel Award Program  so the more people that know about it, the more that might make submissions, and the worse my chances are at winning…..

In the end though, the peer review process is broken, and its up to us to work with the journals to fix it; so I figure if you have some great ideas, even if I don’t end up with some much needed extra travel funds, then I will still benefit as a member of the scientific community if your idea gets implemented! So if you are travelling to a conference between July 2016 and March 2017 and have published as first author in PLOS, then check out the grant – entries close 31st May!

But the process of writing about fixing peer review got me thinking again about kindness in academia.

It’s a topic I’ve written on before, but this week I came across two great blogs and some inspiring tweets that stuck with me so I wanted to share it with you:

Criticizing in Kindness

The first was the BrainPickings blog by Maria Popova that discusses Daniel Dennett’s book ‘Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking’, in which Dennett synthesizes from the works of Anatol Rapoport, a social psychologist and game theorist. Dennett covers off on the how to compose a successful critical commentary (and I quote):

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way”.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

It works not just because its ‘nice’, but because the kindness shown in steps 1-3 makes the recipient ready to receive the feedback offered in step 4. Can you imagine a world in which you received feedback on your manuscripts like this?

Be on the look-out for Anti-Kindness

The second inspiring blog was Adam Micolich’s: 12 Guidelines for Surviving Science  which included Step 6: “Make sure you have anti-role models too”. Its an idea I’ve never consciously thought of, but is so helpful when we come up against unkindness in academia. We should be on the look-out for people whom we do NOT want to be like.

They will teach you more lessons than any positive role-model or mentor ever can

– Adam Micolich

By being watchful of the academics around me, there is ample opportunity to be learning both what to do and what not to do; how to be kind or not.


One example of a positive role model, seeking to cultivate kindness in academia is Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega. He started a weekly hashtag #ScholarSunday, similar to #ff (follow Friday), to encourage scholars to connect with each other.

He regularly speaks out about his own struggles in academia and shows a way forward for a more kind academic culture. There are plenty of other academics on twitter that are paving the way in this respect too – but this tweet just seemed to capture my ponderings from the week.


So at the start of this new week, we all need to make a choice – especially if kindness does not come naturally to us (and let’s face it, in such a competitive environment its tough) – when you are providing feedback, be it on a formal manuscript, a colleagues talk or some other work, try out the above 4 steps and see how you go. Be watchful too not just for examples of kind colleagues, but whenever you are on the receiving end of unkindness, try to see it as an opportunity to reflect on your own behaviour & make sure you don’t act in the same way. And if you are on twitter why not give a #ScholarSunday shout-out to a tweep you admire and get your followers connecting with them too.

We have the power to change our academic culture, but it’s going to take all of us, making daily choices to be kind, to bring it about. In the end, as Roald Dahl said “To be kind – it covers everything….to be kind, that’s it.”

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