Academic Publications
© 19 Mar 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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In academic publications, cui bono?


The past week I spent excessively long hours each day working on writing research papers to submit to various deadlines. This cut into my free time enough I didn’t write in this blog, but it resulted in some nice progress and some readable papers. I enjoy the process of participating in academic research and publication.

That said, there is something seriously broken with the academic paper market. While it is nice to have a very well-written and complete paper that many people use, there is a much greater pressure to simply having a lot of papers. There is some quality cut-off, above which papers can be published, and the motivation is to spit out as many papers just over that line as possible. This results in thousands of papers reporting half-finished research with just the slightest new material. In addition, there is a strong push for novelty, which means that there is little benefit in finishing off work already published. There plenty of good papers in the mix, but finding them in the slew of mediocrity can be tedious work.

Other problems arise as well. Publishers have carved themselves a remarkable racket, having researchers review papers for free and then charging school libraries and private researchers exorbitant fees for access to the papers so reviewed. Open access journals try to compete, but they pass the cost on to the researcher instead of the school library and they don’t have the creditability of the established journals. It’s a vicious cycle: as a researcher, I want the best-respected venue I can find for my papers, but venues are respected because good researchers publish in them. The business practices and honesty of the journal doesn’t enter into the equation.

On top of all that, papers are treated as static entities. There is no way to fix a typo or add related works you overlooked post-publication. The copyrights are owned by publishing houses, most of whom refuse to allow customized cross-linking or other helpful indexing practices. Peer review is a single-moment event; if a paper happens to get reviewers that don’t really know enough to find its flaws, there is no way to have it later discredited. In each field I have encountered, there are researchers and papers that the community generally agrees are discredited, but there is no way someone outside would know.

It could be argued that all of these considerations are side effects of the structure of the research publication environment, and thus could be resolved structurally. But there is one element I do not know can be solved. To accuse someone of dishonest work is a dangerous thing, for such accusations are expensive to verify and, if incorrect, both vilify the false accuser and injure the falsely accused. But without such accusations, dishonest work unfortunately flourishes.

Still, on the whole, all of the nonsense and problems aside, the publication world basically works. A few publishing houses get rich off of stealing from government grants and student tuition, a few immoral researchers gain credit for work they imagined rather than performed, and the gems of original thought are surrounded by vast heaps of detritus; yet novel ideas are discovered, presented to the community, and used to advance general understanding and further our ability to understand and influence the world.

It is hard to abandon a system that functions, even if it is significantly broken.

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