Baseball As Metaphor For Academic Medicine

Baseball As Metaphor For Academic Medicine


Leonard Zwelling

Houston is depressed this morning, October 31, 2019.

The Astros lost a World Series that they were expected to win and could have won. At the moments their pitching needed to rise to the occasion, it sank. When runners were in scoring position the hitters misfired. They were thrown out stealing third base and they simply were overwhelmed by a better team, the Washington Nationals, four times at home. Who could have imagined such a scenario?

But, as great columnist and baseball expert George F. Will notes in the piece above, there are more important lessons to learn from baseball and from this World Series than the transient rush of winning and despair of losing.

Perhaps the most controversial moments of the Series occurred in Game Six at Minute Maid Park when Alex Bregman, the extraordinary third baseman for Houston, hit a home run and rather than lower his head and trot around the bases as is the custom and standard, he reveled in his deed and carried his bat all the way to first base. Such behavior is not acceptable in baseball. Dancing in the end zone is for football. Decorum is for baseball.

Then, a few innings later, the very young phenomenon of the Nationals, Juan Soto, did the same trick. He hit a home run and carried the bat to first a la Bregman.

Fortunately, the adults in the room responded when both managers, AJ Hinch of the Astros and Dave Martinez of the Nationals, made their displeasure with their young stars quite clear to the stars and to us all. Good for them. As Will says, there are “unwritten standards” in baseball about how to behave. They may be “out of date. That is why we call them standards.”

Standards also apply to academic medicine.

Like what, you may ask?

First, no one’s name should appear on a grant application or scientific paper to which that person has not made a significant contribution. I think academia has gotten lazy and allowed author lists to morph into names of law firms with many partners. A lofty position title like chief of something is not a criterion for authorship. Usually, a piece of work that is not multi-institutional can be attributed to three people.

There is an apocryphal story that is actually true about a young scientist asking a senior researcher to shake a test tube for him while she was doing something else in the lab and the senior scientists saying, “second author?” You get the point. Just being in the lab is not sufficient grounds for authorship.

Second, academics used to do research to make discoveries and to publish the results of their experiments to benefit the world. Now it is more likely that the best of research results winds up in a Technology Development Office looking for a partner and the forming of a company so everyone can make some money. Such a thing was unheard of when I trained in the lab in the 1970’s. I get the move to commercialization, but the move to keep results secret until some money can be made is not the academic standard.

Third, making Cancer a metaphor to which your advertisement speaks is silly and a series of talking heads does not connote caring, discovery or integrity. Get back to basics and the standards, please.

Finally, I want to make an appeal for real notebooks. You know, bound ledgers with data that can be dated and not altered using Photoshop. There is far too much image manipulation going on in academia nowadays. The audit trail is entirely digital and there may be no viable claim to when a discovery is actually made without a paper trail of signed data notes.

Like baseball, academia used to be a non-contact sport with many unwritten rules and standards of behavior. Lately, more academic institutions are having to formalize processes that used to be part of the general DNA of the community. OK, I get that in the land and time of lawsuits galore.

But there is a way to behave and not taking credit for that which is not yours, getting back to the idea of research for the people who pay for it (American taxpayers), reflecting your core values, and absolute honesty would be as refreshing as remembering to lower your head and drop your bat after whacking one out of the park.

It’s just good manners.

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