Changing academic culture: one email at a time...

Shows how we can all contribute to making academia a nicer and kinder place to be

I am sure you have heard it all before. Academia is too competitive. We focus too much on the spectacular successes, ignoring more mundane, but essential activities. Academic stars are often held up as hero role models, even though teamwork is essential. We can't change academic cultures overnight. But what if I told you that we can all take little steps to make academia a kinder place, one email or social media post at a time...

A few quick-and-easy suggestions

  • Next time you log on to LinkedIn, Twitter or any of the social media platforms you are using, don't just use it to publicise your own achievements, but also celebrate those of others. Reshare postings you liked particularly and explain why you liked them.
  • Consider using LinkedIn's recommendation feature to support other academics in your network. I am sure they will be pleasantly surprised. For more details see: Using LinkedIn recommendations to support others.
  • Next time you receive a mass email informing you of someone who graduated or received a particular honour, don't just write another "congrats from me too" or "great job" to the whole mailing list. This clogs up everyone's mailboxes and mainly publicises you, showing off to all your colleagues how considerate you are. Even worse, it might just publicise your achievements if you are someone who has one of these signatures that makes up 90% of their emails (See: How to promote your research achievements without being obnoxious?). Instead take 5 minutes to write the celebrant a personal email that's just for them.
  • Reading a particularly well-crafted email about a difficult topic? Send the writer a quick note saying you noticed how much work went into it and how much you like the result. This is very important for junior academics who might agonise about whether they struck the right tone. However, it is equally important for senior managers (e.g. Heads of Departments or Deans). Being in a senior position can be quite alienating and lonely.
  • Like a paper you read? Share it on LinkedIn or Twitter with some personal reflections.
  • Notice a paper that one of your colleagues/co-authors/academic friends might like? Why not send them a quick email with a link to it? Even if they already read the paper, they will welcome your email.
  • Like what someone has done to one of their online profiles. Why not drop them a quick note?

Send a nice message to an author you don't know

Send a kind email to an author whose work you enjoyed reading, even - or especially - if they are not someone you have met before. I have done that quite a few times, especially in COVID-19 times. Without fail these authors have written back to me saying how much they appreciated this. Here is part of an email on a piece by Miriam Erez and Ella Glikson on the anchoring role of first communications.

Just a quick note to congratulate you on your JWB article on communication climate in GVT. I have recently become very interested in the intersection between language, communication, and culture in the context of migration, but am also very interested in GVTs. I found your study captivating and very well done, the topic is great and nicely positioned, the use of MBA teams very appropriate and the methods were very good too. It is one of these studies where you think: this is so simple, but yet so important, why has nobody done this before?

And here is another on a paper by James Nebus and Sokol Celo on cognitive biases in the perception of distance. Funnily enough the first author of this piece forwarded me a similar email I had sent to him on another one of his articles 8 years ago :-).

Just a brief note to say I very much enjoyed your article. I have rarely read an article on distance in IB that was as useful and practical as this. It is the kind of article where you ask yourself: "why hasn't anyone done this before?" Really liked how you set up the article too and braved the review process in terms of using student samples, which obviously was entirely appropriate in this case. Thanks so much for an enjoyable read.

Having dabbled in linguistic relativity myself I fully understand the attraction of it to Social Science researchers. However, in the past decade I have become increasingly concerned about the proliferation of articles in my field of research (International Business) suggesting deterministic links between language structures and values, beliefs, and behaviours. So I was delighted with this article by Thomas Pepinsky.

Just a short note to say that I absolutely adored your article "On Whorfian Socioeconomics". I am so glad you made the effort to write it. The causal chain between language structure and the type of outcome variables studied in Economics & Business is a very long one that needs carefully argued psychological mechanisms to link its elements.

As is lucidly explained in your article, there is often little to no theoretical explanation for this connection and "thousands of theoretically implausible yet highly statistically significant correlations between linguistic features and survey responses exist". Moreover, as you say, there are often: "unobserved factors that might explain patterns of survey responses and which happen to correlate with the languages that respondents speak". I do hope your article will be widely read and will encourage researchers in my field to redirect their efforts to more meaningful research.

And here is one on a methodological article on necessary conditions in International Business research by Nicole Franziska Richter, which implicated some of my own published work ;-)

You don't know me, but I just wanted to congratulate on the above article. You have spotted a key problem in International Business research and demonstrate the issues it creates lucidly. It is the kind of article where after reading you think: why hasn't anybody spotted this before? I am so glad you did and had the courage to write it up. Of course it is always a little awkward to see one's own work used as an example of "poor practice", but yes "guilty as charged". Not sure whether it was reassuring or depressing to see I had so much company, but I'll certainly try to do better next time.

Acknowledge professional service work: editors

Send a kind email to someone who has done a good job in performing a particular professional service role, for instance as an editor or in organizing a conference. I have sent plenty of thank-you emails to editors after our papers had been accepted (as my PhD supervisor, a long-time editor, once said: any thank-yous to editors before acceptance cannot be trusted). Here is part of an email I wrote recently to Jasper Hotho, the amazing editor of Organization Studies.

Your guidance to us as authors was both respectful and helpful. It was at the same time specific enough to give us direction and open-ended enough to allow us to write our paper, not that of the reviewer/editor. As a result the final paper has become so much better than we had anticipated and something that we as authors can be really proud of.
Your acceptance letter was the cherry on the cake: it is an absolute gem! This is my 90th article and I have never seen another like it. It is original, authentic and genuine. I shared it with three of my senior colleagues and it cheered them all up. One said: "The warmth and empathy in the acting editor’s acceptance letter is wonderful and shows a deep understanding of the nature of the role and collegiality which we need much more of in these times (and indeed always)."
So again: a thank-you from the bottom of my heart and not just for your wonderful handling of our paper. Even more importantly, your professional conduct restores my confidence in academia as a collective endeavour where we support our colleagues and try to bring out the best in them, rather than focus only on our own career and compete with our colleagues for the "rare prizes".

In fact, in some cases I have even sent thank-you emails after my paper was rejected as I could see the editor - in this case the equally amazing David Collings of Journal of World Business - had agonised over the decision, but had made the right call.

Thank you so much for all your hard work and care in relation to this manuscript. Obviously, receiving a rejection is always disappointing, receiving one after four rounds doubly or triply so. However, I fully understand your decision and am sorry it has caused you any agony. Given the set of reviews, I think you absolutely took the right decision. Personally, I am very grateful for your support during the process.
To me there is a positive side to this story too. It reinforces that the review process at top journals is sound. We might not always like the outcome and as always the outcome could have been different with a different set of reviewers. But basically the system is doing its job in ensuring that only the best work survives the process. [...]
In my job I constantly have to explain to juniors that the negative editorial decisions they receive are not necessarily based on reviewers or editors being biased against them. Many seem convinced that my papers and those of other senior academics go through "on the nod" as it is all about "who is friends with whom". Ironically, having clear evidence of the contrary, however disappointing it may be, is in some way useful. Take care, and thanks again, you are really doing a stellar job.

Can I write to a "famous" academic as a student or ECR?

Sure you can! Even "famous" academics like to hear from others who appreciate their work. Don't think they hear this all the time, they usually don't. Everyone assumes they already know. In my 30-year career, these emails have been extremely rare. Interestingly enough they have increased in pandemic times. Maybe people are becoming nicer to each other?

In the past year I have received some lovely emails from students or ECRs that really made my day, week or month and left me with a smile on my face. I am sure some of them will be looking for a job soon, so I have linked to their LinkedIn profiles ;-).

My name is Nii Nookwei Tackie and Mphil Marketing Graduate from the University of Ghana. I write to appreciate your work and tell you how you have enabled me walk the path of a true academic through the identification of good journals to build my writing and argumentative skills. Thank you for providing a means for people like myself who are far away from the quality of work required for the academic world. As I develop and enter the classroom I hope I help people just like you have helped me.

Hello. My name is Xuechen LIU, a year-2 Ph.D. student at the City University of Hong Kong. My research focuses on disruptive innovation and human-computer interaction. I want to thank you for the blogs on how to avoid desk rejection on your website. Yes, my submission to a special issue got desk rejected today. It’s the first time I write a journal article, and it’s even the first time I heard the thing “desk reject.” I googled the term for some information and found your blogs. Your suggestions are beneficial.

I was just searching for some automation software for google citation and came across your amazing and fantastic software which you developed i.e. Publish or Perish. Just wanted to give a small feedback about this. Starting from the concept, the name, and working of this software all the things are really very great and amazing. I just loved this software as I started using it. I would really like to thank you a lot for providing such a great app for upcoming researchers like me. Omkar Kulkarni, Assistant Professor and PhD student - MIT World Peace University, India.

I live in a very poor country [Venezuela]. It not possible for me to pay WoS or any other bibliography service. In that sense, PoP has been a huge help and relief. I really thank you for this extraordinary program. You are making our academic lives in economically depressed countries much easier. I would like to make some tutorials in my own language to help other people to use PoP. [Anonymous response in survey]

I am Jose Cerecedo-Lopez, a 1st year PhD student from The University of Texas at San Antonio and I just finished reading you AMLE paper When Knowledge Wins... I just want to say that I've really enjoyed this paper and it has given me hope and strength to persevere in my career. I hope we can meet someday!

Dear Prof. Harzing, your 2009 AMLE article on academic rankings is a source of inspiration and my most favorite work of all time. Thank you for accepting my request to connect. Rounak Gunjal, Doctoral Student at WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management, Germany

Hello, I hope this email finds you well. I am an African woman who just completed my MA in literature at the age of 45 and hoping to embark on my PhD next year. I am writing to thank you for sharing that article on how to avoid desk rejects and the importance of persistence in publication. Also, reading your blog is a great inspiration to me, thank you and please, keep doing this great work.

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