Professor Y

As in, Why did I ever get involved?

It started innocently enough, all things considered. Several years ago, Natania noticed a message on a bulletin board at Hebrew U. from one of the professors, a very prominent academician. He was looking for someone to assist him in fine-tuning his research papers. The qualifications were obvious: knowledge in the field and a mastery of the English language. That sounds like my daughter. Any child growing up in our home would understand when to use ‘I’ and when to use ‘me’ in a sentence. The science part? That she didn’t get from me.

Natania, having only two or three other jobs at the time, answered the call and began working with Professor Y. And then, somehow, this winter, I was brought into the picture. Actually, I know exactly how and why they got me involved. Professor Y is extremely well-regarded in his field and deservedly so. Like many scientific researchers, however, he has toiled year after year in relative anonymity. What prompted him to seek a small bit of glory, I cannot say, but the good professor decided that he was entitled to a page of his own in Wikipedia. Maybe because he is entering the twilight of his career, it’s now or never. (Something I can appreciate.) He mentioned the project to Natania, as in Can you help me with this?  To which our daughter responded that a) she was up to her neck trying to complete the requirements for her Master’s degree and b) she knew absolutely nothing about Wikipedia. However, she said, my daddy does.

True, up to a point. I had written one article for this internet behemoth that was accepted. It was not easy, and I had no interest in making it my life’s work. That was years ago, and it was a labor of love. The back story: I had been in touch with the son of my photography mentor, Lou Bernstein, and had written something for the website that Irwin had put together – to keep his father’s legacy alive and, if possible, to sell a few of Lou’s photographs.

But as long as I had started and my juices were flowing… There was already a Wikipedia article about the Photo League, the seminal organization of socially conscious photographers that came together in NYC in the 1930’s. The article listed many of its prominent members, including Lou, and some of those listed had a link to an article about him or her. Not Lou. Well, why not Lou? I figured that if I – who owed him so much – didn’t create such an article, nobody else would. Irwin was thrilled with the idea and sent me a huge amount of material about his father. With that and my own fond memories, I got started. I had no idea what I was doing, and even with the pages and pages of arcane instructions Wikipedia provides, it took me several tries before I got it accepted, but there it is.

Did I want to do something similar for someone I didn’t know, and, more importantly, whose field of endeavor was completely beyond my comprehension? OK, so I would get recompensed for my work, but the aggravation?

All right, I’ll do it. Professor Y is genuinely a nice guy, and it would be a definite challenge. Find all of the instructions I had printed from Wikipedia, dust it off, and see if it makes any more sense now than it did years ago. Go back and forth with the professor, turning what he sent me into an article. Try to match up the text and the footnotes. Submit the article; get rejected within one or two days. Something like, he’s probably notable, but you need to do X and Y to prove it. Fair enough. Back to the drawing board.

As I well knew, this article was going to be much harder to get accepted than my first. Lou was not the best-known photographer on the face of the earth, but there were articles written about him in newsstand magazines like Popular Photography and Modern Photography from which I could take snippets. And his work was exhibited here and there with kind words from curators and other photographers. I had something to work with. I was even able to get away with quoting myself! (Wikipedia had no way of knowing that the Feibush ben Nachum who was preparing the article for their website was the same guy as the Fred Casden who had written the tribute for Irwin’s site (You can’t begin to imagine how much pleasure I got out of tricking Wikipedia.)

Scientific researchers, on the other hand, work in relative obscurity. There are no human interest articles that make their way into the media that you and I are going to see. Tell us, Professor, what got you interested in studying rodent brains? Plus, how is the average Wikipedia reviewer going to make sense out of: Y has studied the mechanism by which certain neuroteratogens induce their deleterious effect, focusing on behavioral defects that are mechanistically related to the septohippocampal cholinergic innervation. That’s the way the section on his accomplishments begins. What am I supposed to do with that! Is that even in English?

I did what I could, providing additional information and resubmitted. Once again, within a day or two, I got the bad news; I hadn’t proven my case. It’s time to get some more players, some heavy hitters, on my team and get serious. Don’t mess with me, Wikipedia.

One of our friends is a librarian at Hebrew U., and I enlisted her help. I figured that there’s probably material in the bowels of the internet that I can’t get to from my browser, stuff from Academia that only a select audience is privy to. Sure enough, there is. For example, the Citation Report of the Web of Science Core Collection. (I know you don’t know what that is, so I will explain.) It lists how many peer-reviewed articles a particular academician has authored or collaborated on, and how many times a specific article has been cited by other researchers in their articles.

In a better world, someone reviewing a submission for publication would understand what these statistics are all about and how they are relevant. For example: Natania is listed as one of the authors of a paper based on research that she and her supervisor, Oded, had done. It took about three tries to get it approved, which, I’m told, is par for the course. What’s the difference between Wikipedia and a peer-reviewed journal? For the latter, the folks doing the review would know full well what ‘septohippocampal cholinergic innervation’ is all about and would know the credentials of the main players in the submission. That’s for any one article. So, if an academician has been able to publish, say, 100 articles, and the research involved in those articles has been cited hundreds and hundreds of times, that says something about the importance and reliability of the researcher and his or her work. At least it does if you understand what’s going on.

I was hoping the additional information I provided for attempt #3 would get my article over the hump. At least, we weren’t turned down in the first few days as we had been before, meaning we would get a full review with five months! This time they turned us down with three months to spare. (At least the reviewer read my article!) Yes, it is true that most of the information about Professor Y’s accomplishments was based on his own research, but what do you want from me?

I had one more trick up my sleeve. Our librarian friend had mentioned that Hebrew U. has archives with information about Prof. Y that might not be on the internet. She contacted a buddy of hers who works in the archives, and he referred me to his boss, the head honcho. Hey, Ofer, may I come in and peek through your files?

Understand, I had no idea what was in the archives about my client, but it had to be more than he had about himself. For a guy who suddenly wants to be made famous in Wikipedia, he sure had done a lousy job of keeping records of his life and times. Plus, there were awards he had won and positions he had held that I wanted to include – because they would impress the layman – that he vetoed as being unimportant. I would just go to the archives with pen and paper to take notes and my iPhone 6 to take pictures. I might find a lot; I might find nothing, but I had nothing to lose, and I was rapidly running out of good ideas.

Not so simple. You can’t just waltz onto the campus as if it were the Garden State Mall. Even back when I was tutoring in the English as a Foreign Language Department you needed a pass from Security. Now with COVID-19, it’s even worse. I won’t go into everything I had to do to pass muster with the university, but they finally let me in. Did I mention that they’re building a new light rail line, going right through the campus? With everything in such upheaval, it was as if I had never been there before. Even when I found my way to the Administration Building, I had no idea where I was going.

Most of us have anxiety dreams of one kind or another. One of my ‘favorites’ – which Barbara has also – is being back in school and being unable to find the right classroom. That’s what it felt like. I had directions, both from our friend and from Ofer, but neither set of directions seemed to match up with where I was. You have to ask, and that can be part of your nightmare as well. The guy in the bookstore kept assuming I wanted to buy a printer cartridge. Others had no idea.

Finally, I walked into the school library. (That they hadn’t moved.) Even if they didn’t know where I was supposed to be, they’re used to doing research, and they’re probably a lot smarter than the guy in the bookstore.) I know the archives are not in the library, but do you know where room 520 is in the Administration building? I took out my phone and showed them the email with the directions I was trying to follow. The woman I was asking took my phone, went back, and had a confab with several of her colleagues, who figured out what the deal was.

It turned out that I was no longer in the Administration building. (There are several buildings interconnected like Lego blocks; you go from one to another without going outside. Think of the Times Square subway stations – just above ground.) Go back to where I came in, find the passageway on the left, look for the elevators, and go up to the second floor. Just so you know, the second floor is in reality the fifth floor, and there is a room #20 (hence 520). And sure enough, there was Ofer sitting behind a desk, more or less waiting for me to show up.

Did I mention that it was a hot day? If not, you probably figured that out on your own, it being August in Jerusalem. I gratefully accepted my host’s offer of a glass of water, after first making my way to the Facilities. Then we began in earnest. Yes, they have two files on Professor Y. At which point, Ofer asked me, almost as an aside, something to the effect of By the way, when did he die?

When did he die??? He didn’t die. He’s alive and kicking. I’m sure he’d be upset if someone thought he had died.

Oh, then I can’t show you his files without his permission.

Maybe it was just too hot, and I was too exhausted from my peregrinations around the campus to make a fuss. Maybe it’s because I know I’m in Israel where there’s usually one more unseen obstacle when you least expect it. Maybe it was because it’s actually not unreasonable to get someone’s permission to see their files. I decided not to remind Ofer that my emails to him mentioned specifically that it was Prof. Y who was asking me to prepare the article – sort of implying that he is alive, assuming the reader was paying attention, which one would hope an academician would do. I decided not to get upset.

That’s OK. I’ll email him later and I’ll be back next Monday. At least, I now know how to find you.

Long story, short: I have an appointment to go back tomorrow and peruse what goodies are contained in the archives. Wish me luck, but I know that instinctively you would do that anyway. At least, you’re paying attention.














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