Where is the golden age of academic research?
August 15, 2013  

Henry Blodget, in a post ripped off from Matthew Yglesias, says that contrary to popular wisdom, we are in a golden age of journalism:

  • The world is vastly better informed than ever before.
  • More great journalism is being produced today than ever before.
  • Every journalist on earth can now reach nearly every human on earth—directly and instantly.
  • The struggles of the traditional news business have been greatly exaggerated.
  • Digital news organizations now employ a whole new generation of talented journalists, and these organizations are getting better, more comprehensive, and more sustainable by the day.
  • The proliferation of mobile gadgets has made it possible to consume news anywhere 24 hours a day.
  • Today’s journalism now offers a full range of storytelling formats
  • There are no longer any time or space limits for any story.
  • There are no space or topic constraints for the broader publication.
  • Publications can now take advantage of many different forms of distribution.
  • There is now more media accuracy and “consensus knowledge” than ever before.
  • It is easier than ever before for talented aspiring professional journalists to start practicing their trade.

In other words, newspaper publishing might be in trouble but journalism is much better off than it has ever been. I agree with all of this.

The strange thing is that in academic (as opposed to journalistic) research and publishing, we’ve seen little of this, to our loss. In my own field, computer science, I see in particular:

  • Every computer science researcher on earth can now reach nearly every human on earth—directly and instantly—but instead chooses to submit papers to paywalled conferences and journals.
  • Universities employ no more professors and researchers than they ever have, and more of them are adjuncts off the tenure track.
  • Today’s computer science research appears in the same old format, the 10–15 page PDF in 10-point font.
  • There is no reason for any time or space limits for any story, but we impose them anyway (e.g., academic papers have page limits that harm scholarship).
  • There are no space or topic constraints for broader publications, but we choose not to publish more broadly, sticking with the same established journals and conferences.
  • Publications do not take advantage of many different forms of distribution, they rely on libraries and paywalled sites as always.
  • It is harder than ever before for talented aspiring academic computer scientists to start practicing their trade, since the finite number of academic positions is constant or shrinking and conference and journal acceptance rates are now below 10%.

It’s a shame, because we’ve done this to ourselves. We have chosen not only to submit to gatekeepers—for-profit academic publishers like Elsevier—but to be gatekeepers ourselves. We serve on editorial boards and program committees that enforce ridiculous acceptance rates and page limits. We insist on granting tenure only based on publications in those venues. We do not publish research in non-traditional media like blogs, and we do not cite whatever research is published in those media.

Once again, this is all by choice, and the only solution is to choose differently. Publish your research on a blog or arxiv.org, cite other blogs, avoid paywalled journals and conferences, and give credit to those who do likewise. There is some small movement in this direction (e.g., Narayanan), but we need much more.