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The culture of scholarly papers


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#1 Free Capitalist

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Posted 12 December 2005 - 10:11 PM

Ever since enrolling in graduate school, I have come to realize just how distinctly unique "upper-level" scholarship is in the sciences, and how different it is from what the layman's understanding might be of such scholarship. It turns out that a lot of scholarship and technical research these days is not done by companies per se (or even by the government), but by universities and professors, and a lot of their productive output is less and less into books, and more and more into very specific technical articles, published in very specific technical journals organized for such purposes. I have also found that this 'culture of scholarly papers', for lack of a better word, is a very new development, only going back about 100 years or so at the latest, and that only in the past 50 years or so has it increasingly gained in momentum.

So my question is for those on The Forum who have been in the environment of scholarly papers for a long time (such as Stephen): what is your opinion about today's enormous emphasis on scholarly papers, about the "publish or perish" attitude of many universities towards their professors, and about the general trends in the past 100 years of this phenomenon (e.g the shift of research towards professors and away from companies).
"I will tell you of the most native and greatest adornment of Athens, that which comprises and contains all the rest. Some lands are adorned as the birthplace of elephant and lion species, others as the birthplace of horses and dogs, and yet others of creatures the tales of which frighten children. But its land is adorned by the fairest thing on earth, not to be mentioned like some winged ants of India. For it was the first to bear Man."
-Aelius Aristides, 2nd c. AD

#2 Paul's Here

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Posted 12 December 2005 - 10:56 PM

Ever since enrolling in graduate school, I have come to realize just how distinctly unique "upper-level" scholarship is in the sciences, and how different it is from what the layman's understanding might be of such scholarship. It turns out that a lot of scholarship and technical research these days is not done by companies per se (or even by the government), but by universities and professors, and a lot of their productive output is less and less into books, and more and more into very specific technical articles, published in very specific technical journals organized for such purposes. I have also found that this 'culture of scholarly papers', for lack of a better word, is a very new development, only going back about 100 years or so at the latest, and that only in the past 50 years or so has it increasingly gained in momentum.

So my question is for those on The Forum who have been in the environment of scholarly papers for a long time (such as Stephen): what is your opinion about today's enormous emphasis on scholarly papers, about the "publish or perish" attitude of many universities towards their professors, and about the general trends in the past 100 years of this phenomenon (e.g the shift of research towards professors and away from companies).

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According to this article, there is a new credo in biotech fields: "patent and profit."
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#3 Stephen Speicher

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Posted 13 December 2005 - 05:58 AM

Ever since enrolling in graduate school ...

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The sheer amount of specialized research in the sciences has been increasing for several decades at an enormous rate, and those active in many fields rely on the most timely reports of findings. Not only are the specialized journals more timely than books, but preprints in various forms -- personal distribution lists or archives -- are even faster. And many technical journals themselves provide online facilities for subscribers to receive advanced copies of scheduled papers for print. This all makes perfect sense, especially for the most dynamic fields in science.
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#4 Guest_ElizabethLee_*

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Posted 25 January 2006 - 07:56 PM

According to this article, there is a new credo in biotech fields: "patent and profit."

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Paul, what is your comment about that? I don't really see much different in kind from prior fields, such as electrical engineering, where patents were always an option. The article seems to think that patenting poses a threat to research or university ethics. I can't agree with that from what I know.

#5 Guest_ElizabethLee_*

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Posted 25 January 2006 - 08:07 PM

hi FreeCap!

It turns out that a lot of scholarship and technical research these days is not done by companies per se (or even by the government), but by universities and professors

Is that new? Certainly the topics investigated by universities differ now than 50 years ago. My Dad told stories of how people got PhD's by computing tables of numbers. When computers came out, some of them felt their life work was somehow degraded, which isn't true of course. But consider what life would have been like in that time. Things that laypeople would call research, that lead towards practical invention, could more often have been done by business. So perhaps in percentage terms, academic research becomes less academic the further each science is developed.

On the other hand, people have whined for a while about "how little research funding is done by companies." I don't feel well versed to comment on that with authority. But my opinion is that business is very very responsive to all factors in the environment. So if government makes research expensive, if taxes promote short term projects, if patent fears and patent suits make patents mandatory, if people see compelling short range ideas, then those are the avenues that will get not/selected.

As far as the "publish or perish" attitude, I like it from what I know. Papers are objective, tangible evidence of an accomplishment. Do you not agree?

#6 Free Capitalist

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Posted 26 January 2006 - 01:48 AM

Hi Elizabeth,

So if government makes research expensive, if taxes promote short term projects, if patent fears and patent suits make patents mandatory, if people see compelling short range ideas, then those are the avenues that will get not/selected.

I totally agree with you that government interference hinders a lot of science and research work that is done, or could be done but isn't. But the question is, why are schools the place to do it?

As far as the "publish or perish" attitude, I like it from what I know. Papers are objective, tangible evidence of an accomplishment. Do you not agree?

I absolutely agree -- for a researcher. I am just concerned that research is being done in places which should be focused on learning. I'm trying here to get a larger perspective on whether it's wrong or ok, why it is this way, why it's become this way in the past couple of decades, etc. Our universities are the last place of very high standards of learning, and I am concerned for them turning away their focus and interest from that. To have a "publish or perish" attitude towards professors -- that's startling, to me.
"I will tell you of the most native and greatest adornment of Athens, that which comprises and contains all the rest. Some lands are adorned as the birthplace of elephant and lion species, others as the birthplace of horses and dogs, and yet others of creatures the tales of which frighten children. But its land is adorned by the fairest thing on earth, not to be mentioned like some winged ants of India. For it was the first to bear Man."
-Aelius Aristides, 2nd c. AD

#7 Guest_ElizabethLee_*

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Posted 26 January 2006 - 04:01 AM

hi Free Cap!

Hi Elizabeth,
I totally agree with you that government interference hinders a lot of science and research work that is done, or could be done but isn't. But the question is, why are schools the place to do it?

well, where else would it be done? Are you disappointed that govt and industry isn't doing "more"?

And are you saying that research was never done in universities? That seems odd to me. I'm not familiar with the 100-year timeframe, but how could universities teach the cutting edge, ie the latest research, if they didn't do it? Definitely in 1950 top universities had smart people who did cutting edge research.

Come to think of it, math is renowned for this. I think top level math has always been done in universities or institutions of learning, because it's so "impractical" when it starts. Time after time, though, advanced math turns out to be practical.

One debate has been: are the very smartest people able to teach well. Sometimes they can, sometimes they can't. But if teaching skill is equal, wouldn't you rather learn from someone who literally knows 10x as much as you need to know? It's sort of like learnig philosophy from Miss Rand that way... You get the benefit of a huge context, so that your questions are never unfamiliar to the person. I've had classes with people like this, it's pure genius how they can integrate disparate student concerns.

Which school are you attending, if we may ask?

Schools differ markedly on their propensity towards the "publish or perish" attitude. Some schools are more teaching schools and there really isn't much of it. Others, usually the top ones, are more along this line. Nowadays, there's also a new dynamic where some [very few I think?] schools are also shifting away from tenure. Since publish or perish normally is only a factor at the beginning of a career, yearly review would certainly change that, if it occurred. But so far I don't know of any top research schools that are doing this; I did read of a brand new school that seems to want to emphasize teaching doing this. [I forget the name... around Boston]

So far, I think I like the idea of tenure for professors who are brilliant. They may publish less as time goes on, but they are gems! And learning from them is incredible; and they inspire many publications.

Here's an excellent article that explains the difference between research and regular academics; http://www.cs.cmu.ed...dschooltalk.pdf

In general, I believe that there are some kinds of professions [research, pure math, art] that often have huge long term payoffs but the short-term payoffs are unclear. For them, pre-capitalism there were sponsors and kings. Now as capitalism changes the types of support may change over time. If I were wealthy I would probably personally support a "starving artist" dance instructor :o. My Dad might have supported a mathematician, to be his consort in intellectual fun.

I hope over time more and more people get wealthy enough to support stunning creators. Personally, I'd rather do my own dishes and support an artist, if I had to choose a service ;).

#8 ewv

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Posted 27 January 2006 - 03:58 AM

You will find university professors who consult regularly with industry, probably more than you are aware of. There is still good work at IBM and Bell Labs (Lucent), and some private research elsewhere that is kept proprietary, but apparently most research is now done in universities, with mostly government funding, because of taxes eating up the relatively small margin of profit in the private sector. It's hard to pin down all the causes and sort out cause and effect that feed on each other, but the trend is accompanied by a seemingly predominant short-term, pragmatist mentality for short term "results" in contemporary industry.

Most publicly accessible research in private companies seems to be funded by the government, too, primarily in the defense industry. Such government-funded "private" research has become an "industry" in itself. It is run by very bright, technically well educated people from the best universities, but is very political, and the work tends to be short range. Much of it is BS and a tragic waste of potential talent. Development results promised for contracts are commonly not achieved, with something else deemed by someone as "related" and technically impressive-sounding counting as success, which is then used to promote future sales to the government (like DARPA) to keep the game going.

It can be hard to find serious projects with integrity that last for a few years at a time (but they do exist). Those with the "senior technical" titles are often a cover for primarily sales to get more contracts, so the best people doing actual work are often only informally known as the "technical lead". Only the co-workers really understand who they are.

Whether published in journals or not, technical papers and reports under this system are, not surprisingly, written primarily to serve as promotion, with details of actual accomplishments suppressed so that either potential competitors do not learn them, or to hide the fact that there aren't any (often hidden from management as well). I have seen very bright people go into a follow-on project and really get burned when they find out too late that the reports they can't make sense of are hiding the "warts", or worse, the fact that there is little or nothing to follow up on and the promises made to get the contract in a dazzling display of technical rhetoric are impossible, but company management still believes it means something. It's a wonder anything at all is accomplished in this segment of industry, but a small number do good work surrounded by the cynical corruption, and over time visible progress is made, however inefficient and at great cost.




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