altruism-600x400Published in 1925, Marcel Mauss’ famous paper on The Gift hypothesises that reciprocity and exchange are foundations on which human relationships are built.  

In academia, as in most spheres of life, you come across overly competitive and self-serving individuals. However the overwhelming majority of my experiences (that I chose to remember – at least!) have been positive. I think this all comes down to the support of altruistic individuals. Altruism could well be the foundation of energetic, successful and stimulating organisations. So what are the traits of these altruistic academics? 

  1. Share the glories: Altruistic academics never solely take credit for a great idea or a success.

We are rarely able to claim to have achieved something singlehandedly. If the idea came from someone else and you ran with it, then tell people about it! No one thinks less of you if you were instrumental in its success. If you are contacted to comment on a piece of research, make sure you mention your collaborators. If you are invited to speak or collaborate on work but think that a colleague probably has more expertise, pass the honour onto them. Basically this attitude to work fosters good team work – which is essential in academia. Similarly, if something goes wrong, share the issue with teammates or collaborators, ask for their advice and input. If the team is behind you to find solutions, problems become easier to manage, as well as a way to learn from experience.

  1. Volunteer and contribute: Altruistic academics often participate in seemingly thankless tasks.

Whether within your own department, at a conference, or for a learned society: volunteer your time, knowledge, or DIY skills! Often academic departments are run on a shoestring, so any help to improve the workplace is generously received. Running a journal club, setting-up or participating in a coffee-time rota, writing the minutes in a meeting, leading an informal seminar on how to use a tool… You don’t have to promise to carry out the task forever, and you can limit the time you have to offer. Often, once an activity is underway others will join in to help.

  1. Invite colleagues and advertise their expertise: Altruistic academics organise events and invite colleagues when their funding permits it.

Often project grants cater for dissemination or the costs of organising a meeting. If you happen to have a small budget with which to invite a colleague to give a seminar, or better still, organise something bigger like a workshop or conference, this is a great way to share academic expertise between institutions and develop a wider network. It is also not necessarily expensive to pay for a colleague’s travel and accommodation, in exchange for their experience, knowledge and insight. It is also fun and worthwhile occasionally to instigate informal events outside the work environment, such as going for a drink after work, or a pot-luck meal where everyone brings food. These are events where people exchange over a drink or food, and often favour bonding between colleagues and co-workers.

  1. Attend events organised by others: Altruistic academics come to hear their colleagues speak, and are supportive when others organise events.

This is the other side of the coin to point 3 above. If a co-worker has gone to the trouble of inviting a speaker, or even organising an event, help them out by attending the talk or at least some of the conference. They will appreciate the support, and be relieved that others value their efforts. This is especially true when younger members of staff or students are presenting their work, or have organised a seminar. They are often nervous that no one will come to the meeting. Some friendly unobtrusive faces will be welcome!

  1. Academic work is give-and-take: Altruistic academics will get their hands dirty, but will expect you to do the same

Offer your academic support in reading papers and reports, helping with analyses or technical work, without expecting authorship or recognition. The time and effort will be appreciated, and you can limit how often or how much time you devote to these activities. On the other hand, you should request that your colleagues and co-workers do the same. Ask for their input, get them to read over your work, or to help with technical tasks. If you want help or feedback on a specific task, be precise in your request. Conversely, if a colleague is asking too much of you, or asking you to perform an open-ended task, tell them that you want to help, but they need to be more specific.

 Chimps altruism

Naïve altruism?

Obviously, giving all the time with no expectation of a return is unrealistic and unachievable. Of course, altruism is selfish. In the end, we hope that others will behave the same way towards us. It is important to define and impose limits to our generosity. We do not want to turn into the departmental doormat. Nevertheless, organisations founded on altruism are pleasant places to work, where co-workers are more respectful towards one another, and loyal to their teammates.

If your department or institution is not organised in a way that encourages altruistic behaviour, it is very disheartening to carry on sharing in this way. The key here is perseverance. Some organisations favour competitiveness between departments, or individuals, promoting a ‘blame’ culture when problems arise. In such environments it is easy to fall into a pattern of self-preservation and isolation, to protect yourself. Despite feeling alone and vulnerable, it is really worth digging-in with your open attitude to sharing, especially with regards to more junior colleagues. The latter not only  appreciate such generosity, but will be encouraged to behave in the same way. Once a few people around you are on board, it will soon make your daily work environment more pleasant.

It could be argued that the Welfare State is founded on the concept of altruism and the exchange of virtual goods. In this sense, altruism is a long-sighted type of reciprocity – without expectation of immediate return.  Studies in biology, and game theory also suggest that altruism and cooperation are useful survival strategies.

By Michelle Kelly-Irving


Selfish traits not favoured by evolution, study shows by Melissa Hogenboom BBC News

Altruism can be explained by natural selection: Evolutionary biologists overturn long-held kin-selection theory by Natasha Gilbert in Nature

Effectiveness or altruism? (