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Killing an Academic Punchline

An article in The Atlantic explores how memes based on an XKCD comic illustrate the growth of fluff in the scientific literature. This is hardly a new notion in this blog (ahem, like here and here and here and here and here and, sheesh, probably another five or ten posts). Basically, those who determine whether an academic has sufficient value are apparently limited in their evaluative abilities to integer math learned before they hit double digits in age. “Me count papers, more GOOOOD, few BAAAAD.”

But it was these lines from the article that inspired GG to get his grumpy up and respond:

 “Everyone recognizes it’s a hamster-in-a-wheel situation, and we are all hamsters,” says Anirban Maitra, a physician and scientific director at MD Anderson Cancer Center…. Maitra has built a successful career by running in the publication wheel—his own bibliography now includes more than 300 publications—but he says he has no idea how to fix the system’s flaws. In fact, none of the scientists I talked with could think of a realistic solution. If science has become a punch line, then we haven’t yet figured out how to get rid of the setup.

Scientific Publishing Is a Joke, The Atlantic

Really? Nobody can think of a solution? They sure aren’t trying hard.

1) Limit the number of publications that can be considered for promotion and tenure. Five seems a fair number. GG thought Harvard had instituted this some years ago, so maybe there is some federal law against it, but this would dampen the enthusiasm for publication.

2) The contribution of the academic seeking promotion to each paper must be spelled out clearly. Providing lab space, owning an instrument, buying snacks don’t count.

3) You can only submit a paper after having reviewed at least 2 other papers. “Olé” reviews (“This paper is great, publish as is”) don’t count. Wanna push out 20 papers this year? Enjoy reading those 40 other manuscripts.

4) Develop a repository for the failed projects that were externally funded. A lot of the crap in the literature comes from the “requirement” (that, by the ways, usually is not official) that every grant must produce publications. So archive the stuff that really doesn’t amount to a hill of beans so that the granting agencies can see it rather than coerce some of us to review it and reject it multiple times before it settles into its publication grave somewhere.

5) End author lists that are longer than movie credits. Either you were really contributing to the analysis being done, or you didn’t. GG has serious doubts that all 150 authors on a Nature paper could even state clearly what was in the paper, let alone describe their essential contribution (“I brought cookies!”).

6) Failure should be an option. Want to try something risky but with a potential high reward? This should not be a career-killer.

And that is just pondering this for a few minutes. GG suspects you all have some equally good ideas and would love to hear about them in the comments…

A Hidden Structural Bias

Many discussions are swirling about in an effort to try to right the wrongs of centuries of oppression of people of color in America. The ivory tower is no exception, and faculty and students are trying to find ways to support students of color to come and be a part of the university.

But what if one of the biggest obstacles is the university’s business model? Here at CU Boulder, this seems to be a significant problem.

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Are PhDs Too Cheap?

GG suspects some of you might have gotten a PhD and thought back to days of eating ramen for the four to eight years and felt like, too cheap? Hah! But as many public universities are being pushed more and more to get their income mainly from tuition, light might be cast on the doctoral programs as sources of savings.

Here’s the simple deal: classes taken in order to get a PhD are typically small and virtually always taught by faculty and not instructors or TAs, yet the preparation for the instructor is unlikely to be less than for a lower division class (indeed, as these advanced classes are closer to the cutting edge in a field, preparation can be harder). So having faculty teaching classes with, say 5 or 10 students versus 50 or 200 is a financial loser. On top of that, a graduate student conducting research will be counseled by an advisor who will also be tenure-track faculty. It doesn’t take a lot of math to see that this is a losing proposition.

So why are there so many places to get a PhD? And why might this come crashing down in the near future?

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Post-COVID College

There have been a number of essays on what is changing permanently in academia. Many advocates of things like MOOCs and remote learning are claiming that their day has come and traditional college life is a thing of the past. Many parents and students would argue the opposite: that Zoom classrooms are a disaster, and that the money they are paying for “the college experience” is not giving sufficient payback. While these are actually two different facets of college (the first delivery of an education, the second a more complex collection of education with peer interactions, social development and personal redefinition), they overlap enough to suggest that we really don’t know what the future holds. So GG, being grumpy enough to be willing to weigh in, offers these bon mots.

First off, it is immensely transparent that the in-person university will continue to be the standard for traditional (post-high school) students. The demand is strong and the social isolation of Remote U deeply unpleasant. Universities will be wanting their faculty there in the classroom to make that experience as compelling as possible. While there might be a few upper division courses taught with some of this technology (e.g., roping in important colleagues for a special lecture) and some aspects of classroom work may well change (homework returned on paper might well end with greater familiarity with tools permitting the submission of electronic versions of work), crowded lecture halls with a human at the front of the room are nearly certain to remain.

It might be a different story at other levels of the college.

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The Coming Publication Apocalypse

To be clear, we are talking scientific publication. And to save some of you time, there isn’t a lot new here, but the trends are looking to collide sooner rather than later.

What does GG mean by a publication apocalypse? Basically the end of any meaningful evaluation of publications; we are heading rather rapidly into a blizzard of material with no vetting or meaningful review. While there are those who think this will be the most democratic way to distribute science, GG would rather point them to how equally unmoderated blizzards of material have led to minor problems in the political sphere like, oh, insurrection based largely on falsehoods.

What are the trends that are facing the whole concept of journals?

  • open access upon publication
  • high levels of publication for tenure, promotion and funding
  • preprint servers
  • junk journals
  • reviewer fatigue
  • expansion of research into more of academia

Several of these interact in poisonous ways. The perception that faculty must publish more and more frequently to satisfy promotion and tenure committees or funding agencies leads to lots of manuscripts circulating around, all of which need to be reviewed, thus leading to reviewer fatigue. Open access demands on journals are probably putting journals fully into the realm of vanity publishers: their only source of income will be what authors pay. This in turn restricts the support journals can provide to editors and reviewers. Researchers who aren’t flush with funds (for instance, many summer intern programs or honors thesis writers or advanced degree recipients who were supported on teaching assistantships) will be forced to either limit their findings to preprint servers lacking any review or junk journals that claim peer review despite lacking it. The increasing pressure on traditional journal publishers will slow the path to publication, making those junk journals more attractive.

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COVID killed which learning?

Last spring the word was that because of the coronavirus, remote teaching would finally be the killer app that would make good on the promise of MOOCs and other efforts to liberate colleges from the hidebound methods of teaching that date back to the Middle Ages. College presidents looking at budgets heavy on old professors’ salaries were rubbing their hands with some glee; this could finally make colleges more financially secure. Then students weighed in with “ick.” Over the summer the institutional response was, well of course the old farts couldn’t teach online that well, you had to do it right with preparation and tools and workshops. Universities spent money on IT resources and the various teaching improvement groups held workshops and faculty played with Zoom breakout rooms and such not. So here in the fall, we were to see the conquering of education by remote teaching after the slap-dash failure in the spring.

What did we get? Um, lawsuits demanding refunds for lower than expected teaching quality. Schools cutting programs because students were not flocking to get an education through a somewhat small TV screen. So where are we going?

Right now, of course, there will be more of the same for the spring. But let’s skip past that. What will things look like in the fall of 2021?

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Tenure, the coming COVID fatality

Universities and colleges have been under tremendous financial pressure due to the coronavirus pandemic. This is particularly true of state schools that have seen general fund moneys decline markedly since the Great Recession. While students and families yell, scream, lobby or file lawsuits to try to get money back from an educational environment that they find to be substandard, the response from most colleges and universities is, we hear you, but our pockets are bare.

What does this mean for the future? Well, administrators are now saying things like “our budget is quite brittle”–which kind of means that if stressed, it doesn’t bend, it breaks. If you get beyond a certain level of cuts that can be managed with furloughs and temporary salary reductions, the next step is outright dissolution of departments and programs. Part of the reason is presented to be tenure, though the reality is that tenure protections do not extend to financial hardship of the university. Of course it can be hard to show that a tenured faculty member had to be let go while colleagues in the same department continue forward; it is for this reason that most schools view the easier solution as ending programs.

So what is the solution?

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Is Academic Research Just Athletics on Steroids?

Recently a document was circulated at GG’s home school that was created to educate the faculty about campus-wide finances. Frankly, nearly all of it was perfectly obvious to anybody who has dipped a toe into campus’s budget (e.g., there is a lot of money that is in dedicated streams that cannot be diverted; you can’t take a federal grant to study bees and hire an instructor to teach English, and a lot of endowment money comes with strings attached). But one statement stood out: it was the claim that research actually is a money-losing operation solely undertaken for prestige. This is nearly identical to the justification many colleges make for having a money-losing athletic program.

Now we’ve talked about the athletics side a few times, but for the most part, athletic departments lose money. And while the athletic department says they are financially independent, there is support for student-athletes provided by other parts of the school and access to lower-cost debt through campus-backed bonds plus other questionable financial transfers that make claims of financial independence doubtful. Only Stanford of the top ten schools by endowment per student is an athletic powerhouse, so arguments that athletics enhances a school’s reputation is debatable if not refutable.

But how about research programs? While big college athletic programs are enormous given the number of people involved, with some budgets careening towards a quarter billion a year, research universities have research budgets that are as big or quite a bit larger (CU’s federal research account is about a third of a billion dollars, and another $180M is lumping private contracts in with donations).

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Memo-ing COVID

August 1, 2020
From the office of the Dean
Big State U.

Dear students, it is my pleasure to welcome you back to Big State U for the fall semester. We have spared no expense in making campus safe for everybody, and we look forward to your arrival (and a check from your parents) in the coming weeks. Go BSU!


September 2, 2020
From the office of the Chancellor
Big State U.

BSU students,
In these troubling times, we all need to work together so that BSU can continue to provide the educational experience you all have come here for. Of course, that means foregoing the social experience you were hoping for, but we all know that this is not going to be a major sacrifice while you pursue your dreams of a BSU diploma on the wall. So we expect you to obey all the COVID-19 rules, including wearing a facemask while walking on campus, indoors and outdoors, and for good measure when in your dorm room and probably too when you go swimming at the rec center–scratch that, we’ve closed the rec center. And of course stay socially distant from everybody–we suggest a 12′ diameter hula-hoop (with the BSU’s cartoon logo of a campus dean) that you can wear so as to avoid close contact.


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“This isn’t what I signed up for”

Quick quiz, who said that?

• college student
• college student’s parent
• faculty member
• university administrator
• university employee
• town resident

Today’s answer is “college student”, but the reality is all of these people could say they didn’t sign up for this (and probably have). After that statement usually comes a suggested remedy:

• discounted tuition
• government support
• understanding of the situation
• protect me!

Oddly, many of these are also put out by all of the above players. Let’s review each player’s complaints.

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