I have to send out requests/invitations to people all the time. I have to invite lots of archaeologists – commercial, museum, government but primarily academic (students sometimes but mainly paid professioanls) – to do things for me. I have to ask people to referee manuscripts submitted to my edited books and the journal that I edit – the Archaeological Journal. I also have to ask colleagues – in my own institution and elsewhere – to read my own work occasionally, to put their names down as referees in support of grant applications, to guide me on a particular point.

Most of this is done in a favour system: what goes around, comes around. Most agree to do it because they know that I am then indebted to them and they get something out of it (directly or indirectly). What do they get? Difficult to know but here are some guesses. They gain flattery, the ability of offer intellectual largesse, experience, something for the cv to demonstrate or stand-for experience, knowledge of the latest research, influence over how others go about their research and think about their research, networked contacts etc. Perhaps there is also a power factor; they don’t want to anger me or upset me or the ability to ask me a similar favour sometime down the line. Some I’m sure are just too nice and can’t say no. I should say however, that many are just plain interested in what others are doing and are more than happy to be asked and think through the work of others, as it is part of the natural curiosity that defines their identity and career choice.

I don’t have direct knowledge of how this range of factors goes on in people’s heads but I guess all this based on my own experience of thinking through, weighing up how to respond to requests. This is because I too receive innumerable requests to read things and do things; appraise manuscripts, write references, become an external advisor, examiner, etc .etc.

The sad thing is that most of this work that we are throwing at each other is unpaid and immeasurable, or paid by a fee that in no way covers the time and effort (and stress) involved. We are all doing this because, the ‘system’ – academic work, research, publishing etc etc, won’t work otherwise. Sadly I am increasingly having to say no for personal, family and professional reasons. I simply don’t have time, I don’t have time to do it justice or there is a conflict of interest.

One of the kinds of invitation that are most flattering, but also most difficult to know  how to weigh up are invitations to present papers: research seminars, conference papers, etc etc. This is because, it is difficult to know whether the time and effort to travel will be worthwhile, mutually beneficial etc. It takes up a lot of time and a lot of energy. But the rewards can be massive – meeting new people, changing how people think about issues, learning more by going than you could ever present yourself. There are so many invitations I get that I have never taken up for practial reasons and I sorely regret them, and many that I have taken up and regreted.

Still, there remains an etiquette. Usually, you don’t invite yourself. I have done this myself and seen the awkwardness it can cause. I got money to travel in Scandinavia and I offered to present at a range of universities. Some dealt with the invitation deftly, others didn’t know how to respond and it ended up a little awkward. At one institution, I showed up, some students did and one academic, but most academics didn’t even come along. It was most bizarre. But my fault I guess, for offering to present rather than following the etiquette of waiting to be invited.

So let me share with you a recent scenario of someone who has no clue about this complex etiquette but was clearly enthusiastic to share their research. They emailed me out-of-the-blue. “I have made an amazing new discovery, I would love to present this in the UK and at Chester” (I paraphrase). I said politely ‘how exciting, I will see if we can make an extra slot for you in our research seminar series, or perhaps create a public lecture since this topic will have wide appeal’. Having discussed with colleagues, it was clear that we simply didn’t have the money. So I replied to the academic:

“Dear xxxx,

Unfortunately we have used up our budget and already confirmed our  2013/14 research seminar speakers. Consequently, I don’t think it is
possible for us to pay for your visit at this time. Very sorry!

kind regards,

Their reply was bizarre.:

Well, fortunately
xxxx does have funding, and I shall be speaking on the subject at their xxx conference on  x xxxxxx, making sure that it is reported in the media. You will  surely be reading about this in the papers before too long.

It is pity that Chester will not, after all, share in the prestige and  glory of the discovery, but, as Bob Dylan said about money, ‘It
doesn’t talk. It swears!’

All the best,

I have been pondering whether the quotation from Dylan’s song about hypocrisy and commercialism is an insult aimed at me and my institution, or a comment on the circumstances in which we as academics are forced to perform and those with the money gain the glory. Or both. Still, it seems that the academic in question feels a little disappointed, perhaps snubbed, that (a) we don’t have money to cover the travel, accommodation and food required for the talk they invited themselves to give, and (b) that we would rue our decision because others will get to hear about it and benefit for the glory of association with his new discovery.

Being generous, one could see this as slightly delusional or moderately self-centred. But looking at the bigger picture, it is a clear warning, that while we all promote our research as best we can, it is usually best to wait to be invited, rather than inviting yourself. And certainly don’t feel snubbed if the people you approach simply don’t have time and money to listen to your genius. Remember that the etiquette we have oils the wheels of a world that is largely anti-commercial and where ideas are far more than power, money and obligation. We are all trying to help move forward our disciplines and our ideas. Don’t feel hurt. Perhaps blog about it instead?