Scholarly Practice

The Academic Zen
of COVID-19 

By Mathew Mercuri (@MathewMercuri)
Originally Published, March 26, 2020

I suddenly have a lot more time on my hands.  My commute has been eliminated.  All of my teaching responsibilities have moved online.  My social engagements have become non-existent, and I no longer feel obligated to visit my mother (although I am sure I will lose weight as a result).  On top of all that, all my meetings have been cancelled, which of course begs the question about how important those meetings were in the first place if they can so easily be dropped.  For me, the result of all those changes is more time to sit and think.

During the last couple weeks I have found I spend more time in my home office.  The emergence of a pandemic gives the epidemiologist in me a fertile ground to stimulate my intellect.  A pandemic also brings with it several conceptual issues and ethical dilemmas that spark my interest as a philosopher of medicine.  There is no shortage of articles to read, and no shortage of knowledgeable people willing to engage me, many of whom are typically too busy or engaged in topics only peripherally related to my own interests.  We seem to be in an environment where everyone is a colleague of similar interest.  Those of us with no distraction have time to think and write - I have noticed an incredible efficiency in both since I was told to stay home. (Author’s Note: Sorry to those of you with children - much of what I say here likely does not apply to you… I imagine many of you are suddenly busier, see this post by a parent-colleague of mine for some tips)

Another benefit of our “lockdown” is we are given an excuse to better understand what is important, what needs to be done, what can wait, and what we actually enjoy.  Or at least those of us who are lucky enough to have a job that can be done remotely - I am sure that those who have lost their incomes and are essentially restricted by government order from finding a new source from which to pay their bills are experiencing something quite different from me, as are those who are responsible for putting their health at risk to deal with the health impact of the virus and its spread.  However, I suspect such stresses also have an effect on helping people put things into perspective.  I have noticed that the quality of “asks” have shifted dramatically.  The projects that come across my desk are focused on things that clearly will impact the organization of care and the health of patients, and are not poorly conceived pet projects or vanity projects.  It seems to me that people are suddenly more attentive to not wasting each other’s time.

The environment created by a pandemic, or at least a lockdown response, is somewhat counterintuitive to our expectations as academics (and for, that matter, much of the contemporary world).  Closing of laboratories and orders to not start new projects will inevitably lead to a slowdown in production for those who do work that requires face-to-face data collection and specialized equipment.  The “publish or perish” culture, that in my opinion has led to a lot of garbage, operates in a manner that expects growth.  Our perception is that we must always be producing, and that such production must always beat the previous year.  If I produced 2 papers last year, I should produce 4 papers this year, and perhaps 8 papers next year.  Our profit-driven corporate culture behaves in a similar way - the goal of a corporation is no longer about delivering its product at a profit, but to grow profits to satisfy shareholders.  A pandemic reminds us that exponential growth can be a bad thing. 

A halt in University activity gives many of us an excuse to slow down, whereas for others, in particular clinicians, there is a need to concentrate on other tasks (e.g. clinical work) gives them an excuse to avoid research obligations that are not their passion (I believe we do clinicians a disservice by expecting them to be researchers and educators on top of being clinical experts - I think many of them feel pressure to work on projects that are outside both their interests and training for the sake of meeting the academic mission).  It will be interesting to see what impact that will have on the quality of work submitted to the journal where I am editor-in-chief.

In the meantime, I will continue to use my sudden “surplus” of time to read, write, and get some exercise in between.[3] [4] 

Mathew Mercuri BKin , MSc, PhD (@MathewMercuri) is a researcher in the Division of Emergency Medicine within the Department of Medicine. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice