Toward author-centric science

Too many research papers in Computer Science are nonsense: they convey no worthy message. Yet they pass a Turing test of sort: at a glance, they are indistinguishable from interesting research papers. In fact, they are designed as nonsense from the beginning: the authors mimic the output of good research. The goal is to appear to be doing valued research. Some of these papers appear in top conferences, and even go on to be highly cited.

What is the difference between a Stephen King novel and the average horror manuscript? At first glance, probably not much. After all, it is all a matter of taste. Yet if you have read enough novels, you can recognize King’s mastery. Avid readers know who are the best writers and they stick with them. It is not sufficient to get a manuscript accepted by King’s publisher to get the attention of his readers. People first care for the author. Stephen King is the brand.

In science, we publish by venue, by journal and by topic. Yet if we followed specific researchers, the same way we follow specific writers, these researchers would have a strong incentive to produce interesting work. It would not be profitable to write many uninteresting research papers since nobody would follow your work.

The idea is not new nor original. Back in 2005, I urged researchers to setup RSS feeds for their publications. Arxiv recently made author feeds available. Creating RSS feeds is technically easy. We have no excuse.

Please: if you want me to read you, make it easy to receive notice whenever you publish a new research paper. If enough researchers do it, we might improve the quality science significantly. Why wouldn’t you want people to follow your work?

Further reading: Scholarly Communications must be Syndicated by Gideon Burton

Eating my own dog food: You can subscribe to my research papers by email or through a reader.

13 thoughts on “Toward author-centric science”

  1. I totally agree… It should be as easy to add a new academic to my watch list after I read a good article by them, as it is to press “follow” in Tweetie, when someone interesting pops up.

    I personally have a blog, where I post about the most significant new stuff I do, and I also have a list of publications and presentations as a page. But maybe I should have a separate RSS feed, with microformats or sth, that could feed straight into someone’s “personal research environment”?

    On a side note, which file format do you prefer for publishing? I’ve used PDF so far, but when I had an ebook reader, I hated to read poorly formatted (CC licensed!) reports on it, because of PDF… ODT? LaTeX (I don’t use it currently), some form of XML (NLM dtd?), docBook? Copy and paste the text to a website?

  2. I think we should have both, although I am really curious about how many people really worry about the quality of the journal when they go looking for material. I know that I am usually researching quite specific areas, that tend to have little information available (such as the use of open educational resources in China :)), and when I look for information, I usually use different academic and non-academic search engines, and I am as likely to get useful information from a blog post, a not very good OA web-only journal, or a very traditional printed journal – I trust my own judgment as to what I should read – rather than to put something aside, because it’s in a lower level journal (of course, I might choose not to cite the blog, but that’s another issue).

    And btw, I’m a second year MA student, so rather low on the pecking order 🙂 But I try to publish online everything I do – most of it not peer-reviewed yet (ie invited talks, conference presentations etc), and I think that people who are interested in my areas will follow what I do, regardless of whether it got in to the most prestigious journal or not.

    Of course – this is assuming that you are looking for useful resources for your research – not that you are evaluating someone for tenure or sth like that. And I do like that peer-review is “supposedly” looking only at what you submit, and not who you are.

  3. @Håklev I use LaTeX/PDF.

    @Timmyson

    The author of the paper is a poor indicator of quality or significance.

    Compared to what? Compared to the journal or the conference where it appeared? How so?

    Every author phones it in sometimes.

    I could write poor blog posts as much as I want. Eventually, people would stop reading me.

    it becomes (even) more difficult for new authors to break into the mainstream

    What I am proposing is that instead of focusing on getting your paper accepted by a prestigious journal, you should write it so that your peers reading it will look forward to your next paper.

    You may start out with very few readers, but if they like what you do, they will stick with you, and then talk about your work with others and so on. You will be building momentum throughout your life.

    @Haklev

    I don’t think peer review is oblivious to the prestige of the author, even when using double-blind reviewing—which is never really blind anyhow, just myopic.

    Maybe you are an open scholar. Have you considered joining our Facebook group?

    I think that people who are interested in my areas will follow what I do, regardless of whether it got in to the most prestigious journal or not.

    That is the point. You should focus on being your own brand instead of relying on the branding of a journal.

    That is not to say that you can’t also pursue prestigious journals. I am sure Stephen King publishes with a major publisher.

  4. @Daniel: I think we agree about many things, and yes, I’ve joined the group 🙂 I know that peer review has tons of problems, I was referring to the ideal :)…

    I am still not too happy with the LaTeX choice, because it doesn’t seem to provide much semantic markup, it’s just layout right? Also, how flexible is it if you don’t want a nice PDF? I guess there might be ways to transform the content of LaTeX to docbook, optimize for cellphone, etc, I don’t know.

    Seems to me a good semantic XML platform would be the best. I am fascinated by the National Library of Medicine XML dtd. However, I’d need something really userfriendly to author with – or to transform it from something else – Markdown or sth. Hm.

    PS: You should make the captcha harder… factorizing large numbers or something 🙂

  5. @Haklev

    I am still not too happy with the LaTeX choice, because it doesn’t seem to provide much semantic markup

    Compared to the average Microsoft Word document, LaTeX is semantic paradise.

    it’s just layout right?

    The spirit of the LaTeX (not to be confused with TeX) is semantic markup. That’s why I can take a LaTeX paper and, at the last minute, set the layout to any journal of my choice.

    So, I write title{This is the title of my paper}, and LaTeX writes it out for me. I don’t worry about fonts or anything.

    Seems to me a good semantic XML platform would be the best.

    DocBook has been around for a long time. It works.

    I’d need something really userfriendly to author with

    Ever tried LyX?

    You should make the captcha harder… factorizing large numbers or something

    It used to be much harder, but people kept on complaining.

  6. I agree with the author-centric view. In the field of Computer Vision, I find that there are a few groups whose publication pages I keep checking every few weeks. I feel like I must know what problems these few key authors are working on at all times. In fact, if these authors published early drafts and eager students found out about them via RSS feeds, there could potentially be interaction and the papers would even improve.

  7. @jeremy

    What are some instances in which an authors thinks that he or she is conveying a worthy message, but is actually not?

    I have in mind the case where the author is not interested in communicating a worthy message. His sole goal is for the paper to be accepted.

    I can fully, personally accept that I may be one of the boring bloggers. The question is: Am I, or are there simply contextual factors that make some writing/work interesting to some, and uninteresting to others?

    Over 100 people have subscribed to your blog using Google Reader. Do you think these people subscribed to your blog just to help you raise your subscriber count?

    BTW I am one of the subscribers. And I am very selective.

  8. @jeremy

    Yes. It is all about choosing what to reward. I think we would get better results out of science if researchers were enticed to get more people interested in their work, rather than merely have some conference accept their work.

    But on the short term, I think that a scholar can only benefit by making it easy for people to follow him. I am amazed at how little interest most researchers have for getting people to read them. Many are entirely focused on getting their papers published…

    Please people: if you don’t like RSS feeds, then make it easy to receive notifications where new papers are posted.

  9. I disagree. While allowing information to be better organized according to its meta-information, I feel there is a tendency to treat a paper as significant, based on the caché of the author, rather than necessarily the content of the paper itself. The author of the paper is a poor indicator of quality or significance. Every author phones it in sometimes. The disincentive for this is removed if there is more emphasis placed on the author, and it becomes (even) more difficult for new authors to break into the mainstream. Admittedly my experience is from a little lower in the academic pecking order.

  10. Too many research papers in Computer Science are nonsense: they convey no worthy message.

    Could you give an example or two? Maybe even an example in which all personally-identifiable information has been stripped away? I’d like to understand what you find most frustrating.

    Is it that the papers only offer incremental improvements on an otherwise boring/old problem? Is it that they introduce a new problem, but solve it in such a ridiculous way (time complexity? space complexity? other infeasibility?) that the solution isn’t even worth considering?

    What are some instances in which an authors thinks that he or she is conveying a worthy message, but is actually not?

    I can even give you a personal example. When I blog, I (like most everyone, I’m sure) tend to believe that I’m writing about something interesting and conveying worthy messages. Otherwise I wouldn’t write. But I have friends who disagree; witness this post, and the first commenter’s response:

    http://irgupf.com/2009/08/04/google-not-very-googly/

    Now, “FD” the commenter is a friend of mine, so I’m pretty sure he wasn’t just trolling. But clearly I thought the information in my post conveyed something interesting and important, and. And clearly he didn’t.

    I can fully, personally accept that I may be one of the boring bloggers. The question is: Am I, or are there simply contextual factors that make some writing/work interesting to some, and uninteresting to others?

  11. Ah, thank you for the compliment; I hope I didn’t come across as fishing for it. I was just giving you permission to use a personal example, so that you didn’t have to specifically call out some other author and publicly tear down any papers.

    I think I understand a little better, now. You are saying that it could very well be that some papers (blogposts, tweets, etc.) are indeed boring. But what is more important to you is whether the author intent that generating the information was one of trying to be interesting (good!) vs. trying to self-promote (bad!).

    So to put words in your mouth; you’re not as bothered by those papers that end up not being interesting, because you think it is a boring problem, or are not particularly interested in a certain class of solutions, or whatever. Unintentional uninterestingness is fine.

    Thx for the clarification.

  12. I think it would be a good idea for authors to have RSS or announcement of their papers as you suggest. In my field, many researchers announce their work through two mailing lists.
    On the other hand, it is fairly easy to receive table of content alert as well as paper citation alert. I found that citation alert on paper important for my work are a very good way to be sure I am aware of what is published that could affect my next paper with very little filtering to do.

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