A note to Research Scholars of the Ronin Institute from Jon F. Wilkins, Founder
Expectations and obligations for Research Scholars
Let’s start with the expectations and obligations that we do NOT have.
The Ronin Institute has no annual fees, and no formal requirements in terms of number of publications or grant dollars required to remain a Research Scholar in good standing. Counting papers and pressuring people to bring in grants is not what we are about. We do expect Research Scholars to read and understand our Founding Values of truth and empathy, and to abide by the specific policies that flow from those values.
What we ask is that you continue to pursue your research in the way that works best for you, and that you work with us to develop a new and better model for scholarship. That means being actively engaged with the community in some way, for at least a couple of hours each month. There are lots of ways to engage, and we are confident that everyone will find something that works for them. In particular, we want to emphasize that engagement does not have to mean attending meetings or doing service work for the organization (though we do rely on volunteers, and we would love to have your help if that does work for you). It means actively thinking about the community for at least a couple of hours each month. At a minimum, we ask that you look at the weekly Update and keep an eye out for things you might like to participate in. Engagement can also mean having a friendly conversation on Slack, helping another Research Scholar track down a paper, or giving restaurant recommendations to someone who will be going to a conference in the city where you grew up.
Most importantly, we expect that you will be honest and thoughtful, both in your scholarship and in your interactions with the community and world at-large.
To maintain your membership and affiliation, we ask you to reaffirm your interest in being a Research Scholar and ongoing commitment to our values and policies once a year. At the moment, that means our Human Subjects Research ethics policy and the Code of Conduct commitments.
Note that these commitments apply to all of your scholarship and interactions, whether or not you are acting under the auspices of the Ronin Institute. By committing to our Human Subjects Research ethics policy, you are agreeing to follow those principles and procedures in all of your research activities. For example, you can’t say, “I don’t want to follow those rules, so I just won’t use my Ronin affiliation for this work.” Similarly, we hope that the principles outlined in the Code of Conduct will be something you would want to follow in all of your interactions, both academic and personal, and not just at Ronin Institute events.
The two core founding values
If you are doing scholarship, your job boils down to this: say things that you believe to be true.
This doesn’t mean that you have to be working on something quantifiable, or experimentally reproducible. Remember that “saying something true” will look very different in different fields, and even the definition of “truth” is pretty slippery when you get right down to it. For our purposes, it is probably simpler to describe what it looks like to not seek truth.
The simplest case would be fabrication. If you are making up data, or deliberately misquoting something, you are lying. This is not scholarship.
Slightly slipperier are cases of misattribution, where you are saying something true, but not appropriately giving credit. Cases of outright plagiarism are clearcut, but relatively rare. And when clear plagiarism is found, academia tends to do a pretty good job of punishing the offenders. More common is the tendency to omit or underemphasize the work of other scholars. There are people out there who have built successful and prestigious careers through systematic misrepresentation of the originality of their work. This, however, is not cool.
Most difficult are cases of confirmation bias. We all have favored theories and hypotheses. Plus, we all exist not just as scholars, but as people, with political and social lives. It may well be impossible to do any sort of research without hoping for a particular outcome, or thinking about the implications of the results. Often, we may have a strong sense of what the right answer is, based on years of experience and informal observation. Perhaps in an ideal world, we would approach each research project by saying, “Here’s an interesting question. I’m going to find out the answer.” In practice, though, we often work from a stance of, “Here’s an interesting answer. Now how can I prove it?”
The question you want to ask yourself here is this: What would you do if, in the course of your research, you came across evidence that fundamentally contradicted your beliefs? If you are open to the idea that your favored hypothesis might be wrong (or at least less general than you thought), and you would be willing to slam on the brakes and change direction in response to new evidence . . . Congratulations! You’re a scholar!
If your response to this would be to look desperately for some way to disregard or discount that evidence, or simply to ignore it, then you’re not really seeking “truth” in any meaningful sense of the word. That does not mean you’re a bad person, or that you’re not smart. In fact, depending on your agenda, this might be a really valuable thing to do. But, it’s not scholarship. Don’t fret, though. This might actually be great news for you! There are a lot of careers out there where the whole idea is to present half-truths in the furtherance of some agenda. And most of those careers pay much better than anything in academia.
This is about how you do your research, and how you interact with other people (both within the community and outside of it).
In the context of your research, we want to encourage everyone to think carefully about the context and potential consequences of their work. This means designing your research in a way that minimizes the potential for harm. It also means being thoughtful about the ways in which your work might be misused or misrepresented by others.
In the context of the community, we want everyone to approach each other in a spirit of kindness, generosity, and patience. Remember that we are a highly interdisciplinary and highly international community. Other people may be coming from perspectives or backgrounds that are very different from yours.
A good starting point for interaction is this: Act In Good Faith and Assume Good Faith from Others
The more concise version of this rule, which you may have seen elsewhere, is “Don’t be a dick.”1
It’s a simple rule, but one that is notoriously difficult to apply and enforce. Here’s a stab at some guidelines, though:
Essentially, we expect you to act courteously and professionally in your dealings with each other. As our numbers and capacity for interaction grow, there will doubtless be opportunities for spirited discussion, which will sometimes become heated. That’s a good thing. Just don’t get sucked into the trap of blame and resentment.
Avoid ad hominem attacks. Don’t call someone an asshole. Even if they are acting like an asshole. Maybe especially if they are acting like an asshole.
Avoid language that you know is likely to be offensive to certain groups of people, whether or not you think they should be offended.
Phrase things as constructively as possible. Yes, maybe their paper was terrible. You don’t have to pretend you thought it was good. Just focus on how it could be made better.
Don’t escalate. People will slip up. Sometimes, the most effective way to handle it is to respond as if they hadn’t.
Basically always take a breath and remind yourself that there is a real human being on the other side of the conversation, and work under the assumption that they, like you, are intelligent and well intentioned. Even if they are not intelligent and well intentioned, if you treat them that way, they might learn to be, or at least learn how to fake it.
On the other hand, we do want to assume that everyone here is an adult, that we are all capable of receiving criticism, and that being made a little uncomfortable is not the worst thing that can happen to you. In particular, we want to make sure that these rules aren’t used to stifle genuine exchange of ideas through tone-policing. Here is one perspective on this: http://gawker.com/on-smarm-1476594977. However, if we encourage good behavior primarily through example, rather than through scolding, this is less of a danger.
If you do encounter behavior that is sufficiently bad or persistent that it starts to impact your ability to participate in the community, let us know. You can find more detail in the Code of Conduct.
Most importantly, remember that we’re all in this together, and that it is not a zero-sum game. Anything that helps one of our Research Scholars to achieve their own goals helps the entire community. And do keep in mind that different people have different goals and face different challenges. Our job as a community is to provide mutual support in a way that will help each person to achieve their own success on their own terms.