Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Blogging Vs Academic Publishing

Adrienne Felt asked on Twitter:

academic publishing is too onerous & slow. i'm thinking about starting a blog to share chrome research instead. thoughts?
It depends on one's goals. I think if one's primary goal is to disseminate quality research to a broad audience, then write papers, publish them to arXiv, and update them in response to comments.

I've thought about this question a fair bit myself, as someone who's interacted with the publication system over two decades as a writer and reviewer but who won't perish if I don't publish. (Obviously if you're an academic you must publish and you can stop reading now...) Academic publishing has many problems which I won't try to enumerate here, but my main issues with it are the perverse incentives it can create and the erratic nature of the review process. It does have virtues...

Peer review is the most commonly cited virtue. In computer science at least, I think it's overrated. A typical paper might be reviewed by one or two experts and a few other reviewers who are capable, but unfamiliar with the technical details. Errors are easy to miss, fraud even easier. Discussions about a paper after it has been published are generally much more interesting than the reviews, because you have a wider audience who collectively bring more expertise and alternative viewpoints. Online publishing and discussion could be a good substitute if it's not too fragmented (I dislike the way Hackernews, Reddit etc fragment commentary), and if substantive online comments are used to improve the publication. Personally I try to update my blog posts when I get particularly important comments; that has the problem that fewer people read the updated versions, but at least they're there for later reference. It would be good if we had a way to archive comments like we do for papers.

Academic publishing could help identify important work. I don't think it's a particularly good tool for that. We have many other ways now to spread the word about important work, and I don't think cracking open the latest PLDI proceedings for a read-through has ever been an efficient use of time. Important work is best recognized months or years after publication.

The publishing system creates an incentive for people to take the time to systematically explain and evaluate their work and creates community standards for doing so. That's good, and it might be that if academic publishing wasn't a gatekeeper then over time those benefits would be lost. Or, perhaps the evaluation procedures within universities would maintain them.

Academic publishing used to be important for archival but that is no longer an issue.

Personally, the main incentives for me to publish papers now are to get the attention of academic communities I would otherwise struggle to reach, and to have fun hanging out with them at conferences. The academic community remains important to me because it's full of brilliant people (students and faculty) many of whom are, or will be, influential in areas I care about.

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