ChatGPT, your super secretary

The use of AI is spreading like wildfire in research, including for menial tasks that researchers sometimes willingly entrust to it.

— Le 24 avril 2024

This is the English version of an analysis
originally published in French in October 2023.

You are all unanimous : your administrative burden has increased and even exploded. Thus blasting your diaries, as detailed in the box. To remedy this, some of you are using ChatGPT’s artificial intelligence to speed up the writing, not of scientific publications, but of all these documents in the various and varied formats requested on an almost daily basis. A way of showing the absurdity of the system of call for projects pushed to its maximum? This is what an American researcher claims in Nature. Despite that, sSome people accept it anyway.

« By the time everyone gets up and finishes talking, the report is sent! »

Jean-Baptiste Philippi

Agriculture. « I use ChatGPT like a tractor », says Jean-Baptiste Philippi, researcher at the CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research). « The farmers who used it were able to plough a hundred times faster ». Some of his colleagues still prefer to walk on their own two legs: « So making life easier would be wrong ? », he wonders rhetorically. Beyond moral judgment, the facts are there : generative AI has already become normal practice. And even ChatGPT is up to date with what today is called the “increased” administrative burden : « The objective is to reduce the administrative workload through automation and assistance, allowing individuals to focus on more strategic and creative tasks », ChatGPT in person tells us.

Butler. The chatbot developed by OpenAI has even become a real secretary for Jean-Baptiste Filippi, who uses it to write reports of project meetings or even of thesis follow-up committees: « I take some notes during the meeting, then I entrust them to ChatGPT, I read over, give a “prompt” to correct if necessary… the time that everyone gets up and finishes talking, the report is sent ! » In detail, the prompt addressed to ChatGPT consists of describing the context and instructions on the text format. An example: « I am a physics researcher in an ANR (National Agency for Research) project meeting with this and that person, write me a 30-line report ». Then add details, ask the chatbot to change the tone… « In a few iterations, you get a good result. It’s like talking to a super assistant », says the researcher based at the University of Corsica.

« I save ten minutes by email. Cumulated, the gain is crazy »

Hanna Le Jeannic

Petite main. Likewise, in Paris, Hanna Le Jeannic uses it as a writing aid for the invitation emails to the symposia she organizes : « ChatGPT writes in a way that is pleasant to read for a human being, with perfect syntax ». And much faster : « I save ten minutes by email. Cumulated, the gain is crazy », explains the physics researcher. In the doctoral registration season, the AI is also of great help to her : « I write the ideas in draft form and I get the abstract and plan for the three-year thesis. Then I correct, on the scientific aspect of course, but also on the length or style – ChatGPT’s is sometimes too enthusiastic, even charlatan ! » All ChatGPT users we interviewed said they would stay in the driver’s seat no matter what : « Yes, the AI wrote, but the ideas, the instructions and the reformulation, it’s me ! », explains Hanna Le Jeannic. Jean-Baptiste Filippi agrees : « Some people criticize by arguing that they do not trust what the machine comes out with, but we can read over and correct it ».

All automatic. As the science philosopher Alexei Grinbaum predicted in our January 2023 analysis, Springer Nature has just announced the creation of a simple button to reformulate the text of a publication at the time of submission, all thanks to their own model of language modestly named Curie. An option that would have the advantage of reducing the language barrier still to the advantage of Anglo-Saxons native speakers for the time being. But the interest goes beyond rewriting for Hanna Le Jeannic, who encourages Ph.D. students to use ChatGPT : « We don’t necessarily think about it, but ChatGPT helps overcome the fear of the blank page by providing a basis for reworking ».

« With time freed, we can go back to the essence of what we did before »

Jean-Baptiste Philippi

Deus ex machina. So, how will you “cross-fertilize synergies” in your project ? Although using ChatGPT to make applications for ANR or ERC funding is still taboo at the moment, the machine could help to better understand the expectations of the administration : « It’s managerial vocabulary, which we don’t use in research », explains an anonymous colleague. Sometimes with surprises : AI can generate arguments you didn’t think of, or even propose concrete solutions. The key is to use the right vocabulary, as mathematician Claire Mathieu explained in her August 2023 Science&Avenir column. « How can we simplify the administrative tasks performed by researchers ? » ChatGPT offered her some remedies, which she admired for their relevance. 

Digital Friend. ChatGPT can also be used for evaluation exercises such as reviewing an ANR report, explains Jean-Baptiste Filippi who uses the new plugin allowing the reading of PDF. « ChatGPT extracts the text and it is possible to ask it for a synthesis, ask questions or even discuss with the machine what we have understood… Perfect for starting a paper proofreading or correcting master’s student reports in an automated way ». Still on the teaching side, ChatGPT can apparently delivertell you the structure of a course on a new topic in less than five minutes – with examples of code in bonus if it’s in computer science. « You can focus on the most important thing : the intimate understanding of the subject », says the weather simulation specialist.

« Some see it in a playful way. For them, it’s not wasted time »

Pascal Ughetto

Back to basics. ChatGPT would allow concepts to simply emerge, and thus to get to the bottom of things much more quickly, according to Jean-Baptiste Filippi, who is campaigning for all his colleagues to draw inspiration from his use of AI for ancillary tasks. « Before, I spent a whole day writing an activity report, now I optimize it in a limited time. With the time freed, you can go back to the essence of what you did before ». But what are the essentials ? « It could be debated for hours », says sociologist Pascal Ughetto, who declares  not being surprised by the current phenomenon. « Everything is a matter of the cursor, but we are rather evaluatedjudged more on our research, which reinforces our vision of ourselves first and foremost as researchers, who also teach », explains the research fellow.

You are the product. The cost of entry ? Null, the two enthusiasts of the conversational agent respond in chorus. Except that the assessment of time spent on the machine may vary completely : « Some people see it in a playful way. For them, this is not wasted time », analyzes the labor sociologist Pascal Ughetto. And when you like, you don’t count : the “leisure” uses of the chatbot allow you to gain speed when it comes to a more professional request. According to the sociologist, the tool will not meet with unanimous approval: « For some, using it will require even more work ».

« Proposing “bullet points” to a tool and let it manage the writing is problematic, because writing is part of thinking »

Félix Tréguer

Feed the beast. What is difficult for some is impossible for others. Among them Félix Tréguer, a social scientist whom we had interviewed about digital surveillance : « The use of ChatGPT is logical in the sense that it can save time that we sorely lack, but to propose “bullet points” to a tool and let it manage the writing is problematic, because the writing participates in the thinking ». Founding member of La Quadrature du Net (a French advocacy group that promotes digital rights and freedoms for its citizens), he compares ChatGPT to the tools offered by the Gafam : « The collected data are used to run the largemajor language models ». While it may seem indisputable that giving confidential results to an American organization linked to Elon Musk or Amazon Services presents a risk, Félix Tréguer asks : « In the absence of awareness-raising by the institutions, is it so obvious to everyone ? »

GHG vs. GPT. The final argument against the widespread use of ChatGPT rests upon its ecological impact, which is far from negligible. According to the association Data for good, although it is highly geographically dependent and much smaller than the one of cryptocurrency, the carbon footprint of ChatGPT use alone in January 2023 would amount to more than 10,000 tonnes of CO2 (see p.90 of their White Paper). « In the case of generative AI, it would appear that the share of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the inference [usage, editor’s note] phase may far exceed that associated with training », the report authors write. The training cost, mostly studied and reported, is about 238 t CO2 – a round trip Paris New York emitting about 2 t CO2. And ChatGPT is just one model between others.

« This will be ChatGPT versus ChatGPT »

Jean-Baptiste Philippi

Utopia. AI and its carbon footprint appear poised for continued growth, including research contributions. ChatGPT users, who are currently in the minority, can slowly but surely convince their colleagues to take the plunge. « There is a good chance that it will grow », says Pascal Ughetto. « And not necessarily for the worse », says Jean-Baptiste Filippi, who is sure that agencies such as the ANR will also do their best to proofread the files they receive from researchers : « It will be ChatGPT versus ChatGPT ».

Too much is too much

Researchers complain against the administration – too much information to report, too many reports to send… – , the administration complains against the researchers – always late, you have to ask for more than once… For Pascal Ughetto, who had closely observed the changes within his university, this is partly due to a misunderstanding: « What is administrative ? And who should take care of it ? It is very subjective and difficult to define ». The fact is that these tasks are no longer reserved for the central services and that complaints are mounting both in the public and in the private sector : doctors spend time doing administrative work for social security, company executives do “reporting” via excel tables… And research is not spared. The first results of the barometer launched by the Conference of Practitioners of Higher Education and Research (CPESR) last spring are unequivocal : 68% of the surveyed staff consider their working conditions regarding administration to be poor, three-quarters perceive them to be deteriorating and almost four out of five are pessimistic about the future. Responses far more negative than those concerning teaching or research conditions. « While they have not signed on to do administrative work, researchers are caught up in a generalized wave », says sociologist Pascal Ughetto.

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