The vortex of nonsense

A weblog on reading, photography, culture, and thoughts about academia

Publish or what?

I have to laugh at alot of academics who think publishing in journals is the be-all and end-all.

Think again. Publishing companies *love* academics who write things, because they submit them for free, and when they’re accepted the publishing company owns the copyright, and makes money from selling the journals. Yes, you’ll say, the journal publisher does it as a service to academics. *Big laugh* Are you joking! If it wasn;t a viable business model they wouldn’t do it. Not to single any one publisher out, but Elsevier publishes over 2000 journals, and in 2005 made revenues of 2,097 million Euros. What academics are doing is creating free content for a commercial enterprise which makes a nice pile of money by formatting the articles and “publishing” them. Nice way to make a living.

Academics would be better off concentrating on doing real research to help the world, not stuck writing articles that few people read.

“Seasoned” academics

Just a quick note to those, more seasoned, academics who think that younger academics know nothing and shouldn't have an opinion. GET A LIFE. To most of us younger academics we like to have a life outside our job. Not to say that teaching and research aren't important, but sometimes it's nice to do something other than academia. It broadens ones horizons and allows one to think. Think I can't have an opinion… fine. Think I care about becoming a "Full Professor"… ah NO. WHo really cares… it's all about status and some of us really don;t care that much. I may not ever be a leader in my field, but I teach well and I care about my students and the rest doesn't matter. I'll publish what I want, where I want to.

 END OF STORY.

And quit treating us in a patronizing manner.

Spinning…

I do wonder why I would be in academia were it not for the students. I mean *teaching* is the best thing………..

(Waiting for the lightning to hit!!!)

You see to many academics (especially those in the sciences), they're not very fond of teaching. Imparting knowledge and the like. Some academics I know don't even give their students the ability to think for themselves. I am somewhat reminded of a joke:

Q: How many academics does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: None. Thats what grad students are for.

Has it really come to this. The pressure to publish and do research has overtaken the want to impart knowledge. I'm not saying research isn't important. It is our way of learning, obtaining new knowledge, applying it to our own problem domain… saying "what if?". But it shouldn't come at a price. Academics should think more and publish a little less. The whole world would be a happier place. Or better still involve your undergrads in your project. Publish *with* them.

the paper mill

To some academia is about publishing… lots of journal articles that is. Which may have been nice when the only way to gain information was through the journal subscription you received in the mail once a month. Now there are more academics and more journals, and more pressure to publish lots. Looking back on three decades of computer science articles, there are amazing articles to be found, often in smaller journals, or older issues no longer viewed because they are deemed “old”. But such journals often contain excellent articles which have barely seen the light of day. Techniques discussed, but never tried out. Other articles have faired better of course. Some have made it into textbooks consistently for 20 years, are well cited and often used… but *may* not be the most appropriate. We use them because others do. Sad really, but it goes to prove a point. No matter *how* good academics think journals are, most articles will barely be looked at. The articles most referenced may be those whose implementation is available to all, or are easy to reproduce. Code gets pushed about becuase it exists, and other algorithms are left to linger in the vortex of time. Publishing in a journal guarantees nothing. Writing a book is better, but with the high cost some publishers attach to books, I do wonder who buys them.

Academics… blah!

Why do *some* academics have such a holier-than-thou attitude? I mean it’s not like academics are the pinnacle of society, are they? Yes, academics are smart… sometimes, but sometimes they can’t look beyond themselves. Some do ridiculously pointless research, others can’t be bothered with teaching. Others still are just interested in power. I wish a few more of them would concentrate their energy on doing a proper job of teaching students. I don’t think we *truly* prepare students for their lives in their careers. Some would say that’s not our job, but hey, think about it. Students begin choosing a career at high school, lets say microbiology… then they come to university to learn the “skills” that enable them to find a job. University may have been a different place in the 1930’s, but now most students are focused on getting a piece of paper to get a job. That’s why they choose to go into biology, or computer science, or marketing. Medicine and law are professions, and we teach those. Somebody going into law, knows they want to practice law.
Yes we should be teaching basic skills, but maybe we should be teaching more about life. How to cook, how to manage your time, how to relax (I mean university *can* be stressful), how to plan your finances. Some will say these things are not our job. Well times change, and so do responsibilities. Maybe it’s time to help students become more well-rounded. Offer more on-the-job training, and skills-based classes. Yes, it’s a dream, but surprisingly I think students would learn just as much from taking a course on baking than they would anything else. I mean, a little bit of chemistry (reactions of baking soda, baking powder etc.), algorithm design (following the recipe, making changes), software testing (trying the end product), math (conversions from cups to grams), decoration (fine art?). Yeah alot to learn, and it can be fun while teaching an important life skill. It might produce students that are more well-rounded and academics who can look outside the book (sorry box!) more.
I think *maybe* it’s just some of the science academics who have such strange ideas about academia. The whole “publish or perish” thing. I prefer to be a good teacher, publish when and where I see appropriate, and have a life. Students appreciate honesty more than they do a long list of publications. As an academic you should never forget that you were once a student too… probably in times when class sizes were small, tuition was practically non-existent, and you didn’t have 5-6 classes a semester.

Yes, sometimes I perceive the cup as half-empty. But if it were half-full many would be less inclined to fill it.

Maelstrom of mindlessness

Speaking of constructive feedback, what about course evaluations? A nice idea, often implemented very poorly. Firstly, to review committees. Please LOOK at teaching dossier’s when evaluating someone’s teaching. Don’t just base you decision on a set of numbers (usually a mean), which indicates what the student thought of the professor and course. have seen instructors who teach a first year class of 600 compared directly with those that teach a fourth-year class with 35 students. These don’t equate, so you can’t compare them. Better statistical evaluations maybe? Anyone ever heard of the confidence interval? This can help alleviate some of the class-bias. In any manner it is wrong just to sum up a class by one or two numbers.

Yes, true, in the sciences teaching often doesn’t mean as much as it should. Professors who are good at research and *really* bad at teaching, get rewarded regardless. Again, research = grants + papers = good. teaching = sqrt(who cares)!

Sad, that we view things this way. Some of us love teaching, but get frustrated by a system which doesn’t care that much. We want to do innovative things, but many learn the leasson quickly that extra time taken in teaching pedagogy isn’t rewarded. Maybe things will change. I hope so. Many professors could learn a thing or too about pedagogical research. They might learn some new methods for teaching, and might be a little more empathetic towards students. Many forget that they were once students. Others think that a PhD entitles them to behave in a mightier-than-thou fashion. Some academics need to get off their pedastools and integrate into society. Students like profs who can relate to them.

I’m a normal person, and I don’t think I’m better than anyone. I’m have strong opinions, but that’s okay. They are my opinions, and not geared towards pleasing everyone. If you don’t like my opinion, that’s your right. All I want is for things to change, and for everyone to work together to provide a good education for students. That’s not much to ask… to properly educate the people who will one day be running the place is it? Some of us have kids who might one day attend university, and we all hope that they are taught by individuals who do as good a job as we hope we do.

The three researchers

Once upon a time there were three researchers, who worked in a medium-sized university and were happy. One day the three researchers were told that they should apply for grants. They were told that grants are good, but they weren’t given any help in writing these grants, so the three researchers went on their merry way to find grants.

The first researcher decided to apply for a SCREN grant. SCREN was considered the holy grail of grants. The problem for the first researcher was that he didn’t know where his research would fit in. His research project was titled “The evaluation of user-based design ontologies applied to robotic systems”. So he picked a field, wrote his application, submitted it and waited. And waited. Many months passed, and the researcher finally got a response. His grant had been denied. Confused, the researcher asked why? No good response was provided, so the researcher assumed his project was just too applied in nature. The reviewers comments were ridiculous and somewhat self-centred.

The second researcher also applied for a SCREN grant. This researcher had a huge grant from another source, and had applied for the covetted SCREN a few times before, always falling though the hole of peer-review. His research project was titled “Impact of computer-based technologies on learning”. His result also came back negative, even though he had numerous publications, a history of good industry-based funding and a project that had a real-life application. His project was well written, and he even had it peer-reviewed before it was submitted in order to identify and inadequacies. All to no avail.

The third researcher, also applied for a SCREN grant. The subject of his project was titled: “The control of vortex decision parameters in the design of ultra intelligent autonomous web-based search agents”. Surprisingly, the third research had his project approved, with a stipend of $29,000 annually. The other two researchers were stunned.

The moral of the story? If you can write a good story, and convince others that the research you are doing is beneficial (even if it is evidently not), you will get a grant. Many grant processes are tied to the same process of peer-review we know doesn’t work in paper-review. Except this time, people’s bias, lack of knowledge and leack of context actually costs others grants. Good, applied research with a strong possibility of an outcome will not usually get you a grant. People love theory, but don’t necessarily like applications. Some will say that these “applied” ideas should be industry funded. Yeah, maybe they’re right. But maybe, just maybe they should have the same right to be funded as the theory stuff. Funding by industry has strings attached. And any university that advocates it as a way of bringing in money is nuts!

Corporations have shareholders, and shareholders like to make money. Some of us have stocks in these companies, and it is fair to say that we like our stocks to go up, mainly so we can retire early! So, if you work with a company that is providing $ for your research, then they are probably entitled to a portion of the intellectual property. I mean it is only fair, isn’t it? Here’s the catch though. They probably don’t want you to publish the intricate details of your work. They probably want a patent of two, or just want to keep the whole thing hush. So you get $, but don’t get publications. Sort-of defeats the purpose don’t you think?

Too much money seems to be given out to support ridiculous research. Some of it never happens, or the results produced seem bogus. Where is the money to investigate practical projects, which impact both students and the greater community?

Who knows. Somebody should think about looking a little closer at grants and ask where the money goes. And for those that review grants, think about this. Review the grant without any bias, and ask yourself how this research could benefit others. Don’t write in the review that the author should include your work. It’s just ego-centric and unnecessary. And PLEASE provide some constructive feedback. Otherwise, some of us just view obtaining these grants as a crap-shoot.