Front of the Bandwagon
© 2 Apr 2013 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Reflections on academic publications.


As a graduate student and academic, I have submitted many papers for publication. Some have been published, and some rejected, as is expected and proper. Some have been rejected for valid reasons I once submitted a paper where I had accidentally removed a key paragraph, making the rest of the paper nonsense. Embarrassing. , some for petty reasons I once had a reviewer reject my paper because I didn’t cite two papers that had not yet appeared in print. , and some for what I call the “‍wrong bandwagon‍” reason.

Academia correctly wants to only publish papers that are reasonably likely to be accurate and helpful contributions to the state of human knowledge. This objective is implemented by the peer review process: each paper is vetted by three or four other researchers that might be expected to have the expertise to review the contributions of the paper. It is not obvious how else this could be handled; most papers are beyond the ken of most people.

Peer review, for all its good impact, results in an undesirable constraint on what is published. When a new topic is broached or a novel methodology is attempted it is highly unlikely that any group of peers can evaluate the work. Reviews might come back as something like “‍nice paper but not right for this venue‍” or “‍intriguing ideas but did not contain the acceptable methodology.‍” In other words, “‍the things I know to look for in a good paper are not present in this submission.‍” Given that reviews are usually performed by overworked academics for free in their spare time, it is hard to see how any other reaction might be expected.

As a consequence, we see in academia very clear trends or fads. Papers get published when they are novel but closely related to many other researchers’ work. There are exceptions—for example, in computer graphics if you can show pretty pictures and videos then it doesn’t much matter if anyone can evaluate your process—but exceptions are, in my experience, rather rare.

If you want to publish extensively in academia, find one of the bandwagons and position yourself at the front. Study the topic others are studying and take it in general the direction they are moving, but stay a step or two ahead of the pack.

My interactions with successful academics have led me to believe that most of them are not even aware that there is currently-unpublishable space between the various topics of their field. They know that other communities exist, of course, and do some crossover work with members of other communities, but evince no awareness of wilds between the various groups each forging their own path into the unknown.

My particular walk in life has repeatedly dropped me into the gaps. From my first project simulating multidimensional time to my most recent interests in the theoretic aspects of genealogical research and the art of listening to students in computing courses, I have only occasionally lighted where the wagon wheels roll.

There is a vast world of unexplored truths. The more you study, the more you know you don’t know. There is ample room for millions of researchers to do real work on the front seats of the academic bandwagons and there are also vast tracts of unasked questions between these communities. The only people who think the world is boring are those who haven’t looked at it long enough.

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