Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Separation of Work and Life

To illustrate complex issues, I frequently draw on the work-life balance as a relevant and timely problem affecting virtually everybody. Usually, conversations are about how to find effective private strategies and good public policies to facilitate an individual and sustainable balance between the two parts of how people spend their time: work and life. There are many different practices applied or perspectives taken, and, for the sake of complexity, I would like to add another question: Is a separation of work and life always meaning- or purposeful (another more logical question would be, if comparing work and life is somewhat similar to make a distinction between apples and fruits…)?

By using the expression "work-life balance", we are implicitly relying on the idea that work and life are something different, something separated from each other. Aside from the logical fact that life includes work, I think it is a worthwhile exercise to question this tacit assumption of a dichotomy between those domains. Quite often, the separation of work and life is regarded as healthy or generally good in an imperative and moral manner. "You should enjoy your leisure time!" or "Could you please stop talking about work during your recreational activities?" are common expressions in this context. I hope that the pressure to enjoy one’s leisure time is not as high as the pressure to separate work and life…

My point is that life and work cannot easily be separated. Do you think that activities like working, living, loving, being a soccer fan, having your friends’ messages on your mobile, chatting privately during work time, having a swim during lunchtime, and so on, are easily separated into the work-life dichotomy? The domains of work and life influence each other and we are not machines being able to throw a lever to shut off life while working.

If the domains of work and life interact, why do we always assume that work negatively affects life? Could it not be that work is positively affecting life, for example by giving meaning and sense through purposeful actions? Many persons define themselves through their professions, while having their personal identities at stake when talking about work.

I think the best way to think about the relationship between work and life is to perceive these two domains as mutually supportive. Bringing in parts of one’s personal skills and knowledge, personalities, even problems, into the work domain enriches the professional environment. On the other hand, there is also a transfer of professional benefits to worker’s private lives. Competencies learned during working time can be used quite effectively in different settings related to the private domain.

Therefore, a separation between life and work does not further the search for a meaningful balance between the two domains. In my opinion, the two domains have to be integrated into a holistic perspective that brings in the best of both worlds under a common purpose. Life will be much easier and more meaningful if we do not have to separate work and leisure time obsessively.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A doctoral student’s view on plagiarism affairs

Yesterday, a scholarly commission of a German university has decided to revoke the doctorate of the country’s education minister and a close confidante of the chancellor on the basis of plagiarism.1 What seems to be the latest instance of a series of similar affairs not only raises again questions about the integrity of involved, mostly high-ranking individuals of public or political interest, but also about the justness of stripping academic titles most often earned decades ago. Without being a legal expert, it seems convenient to me to turn this discussion into a rudimentary trial, presenting incriminating evidence and exonerating circumstances as judged by a protagonist and stakeholder theorist’s point of view.

Provided that the authors knew what they were obliged to do when writing scientific pieces in which they relied on the ideas of others (intent?), there is undeniably ethical ambivalence behind “…systematically and deliberately faking a mental performance throughout the entire dissertation…”.2 The driving force of misbehavior can comprehended to a certain extent; metaphorically think of a school kid who decides to take on the risk of cheating at an exam in hope of getting away with it and gaining the respect of his/her mates for being the best in class. Also the personal choice to jeopardize one’s sincerity and take on the burden of living with and even building a career upon a skeleton in the closet could be acceptable as long as nobody else is harmed and consequences are taken if it does come out.

From a broader and more stakeholder-oriented perspective, the quality and originality of single research efforts is certainly of interest for a wider range of involved individuals and institutions (failure to render assistance?). Ultimately, the reputation and trust in academic education and the community itself is at stake. In my opinion, the setting in which such major research projects are developed is essential in preventing misbehavior. By actively striving after adherence to scientific principles, the set of stakeholders should provide an enabling context including ethical values. However, it seems also evident that such a setting cannot be characterized by an ever-growing pressure on young scholars to perform along one single dimension, namely the quantity of peer-reviewed publications.

Last but not least, one needs to be aware of the fact that the act of crime is in most cases several decades ago (prescription?). At that time, research was carried out and dissertations were written under nowadays inconceivable circumstances - the World Wide Web and Google & Co. did not exist. But also the means to rigorously check for plagiarism were missing, so the inhibition level for copy/paste was presumably much lower. To draw a comparison between now and then seems pointless in that regard.

The bottom line is (sentence!) that it would be wrong if long-ago decisions of individuals to violate the principle of intellectual property in order to boost their ego leads to negative sentiments towards contemporary science and the involved stakeholders.

Marc Moser


1 Cottrell, C. 2013. "University Revokes German Official’s Doctorate", in The New York Times, viewed on 5 February, http://nyti.ms/12wwcxN.
2 Bleckmann cited in Cottrell (2013)