24 Oct 2011

Why do YOU work?

Rob's experience with the EPA -- they wouldn't give him data unless he filed a FOIA -- made me stop and think:

It seems that some bureaucrats work according to demands from FOIA requests. They do not release information without a request, and they wait until the deadline to comply. They do not appear to care about being proactive OR staying ahead of customer demands (low intrinsic incentives).

This scenario is similar to that of lazy referees who minimize their (voluntary) effort in review papers for journals by looking for reasons to reject instead of ways to improve. They are particularly useless when they ignore the possibility that an author may have an original perspective or novel insight (the not-invented-here problem).

I am happy to say that I am neither resistant nor lazy. I work hard to forward information that people may want to know -- often much more quickly than they expect it. I review papers looking for new insights and improvements. I still recommend rejection for many of them, but only because most academic output is worthless.

[Recall that academics are paid according to the number of publications that they have, which does not mean those publications are good. They are often published by colleagues in specialized journals using specialized language that few people can understand or use. There is little incentive to appeal to a broader audience because accessible writing takes more work and may not even go into a "peer reviewed" journal that counts towards professional output. An op/ed in the New York Times is worth less to an academic than 14 pages of gobbledegook in the Journal of Whatchamacallit Studies.

Bottom Line: People who dislike their "work" do not serve customers. This implies that many people should get different jobs, which -- in turn -- implies a radical restructuring of the economy from unpleasant tasks (supply side) and reduction of income-driven consumption (on the demand side). This disruptive process can take place one person at a time, but it would make more people happier.
Slightly related: Success in business requires networking and let old guys go to war (funny).


Anonymous said...

Hi David,

I'm not sure I agree that most academic output is worthless. A lot of it is useless - that I am happy to conceed, but worthless is a bit strong.

Obviously, bad academic output is both useless and worthless. I propose however that good academic output could be useless but still worthfull (if you will).

What do you think?

Adam Walker

David Zetland said...

@Adam -- worth depends on the buyer, I suppose, but I see them as synonyms, e.g.,

useless (adjective): 1. worthless, of no use, valueless,

Anonymous said...

Okay, it's good to have your clarification there.

I think that something can be pragmatically useless (i.e. art) and still be worthful even without the notion of value (defined in market terms i.e. with buyers)

In fact, I think we can put the notion of value entirely aside in this discussion - principally for simplification.

Academic output is worthfull because it enhances our knowledge of the world, even if it doesn't help to improve it in anyway.

I cannot claim an objective view here. I have tried to be "useful" to no avail. I think that I can definitely be worthful even if I am useless.

I use myself as an example and would by no means be offended if you wish to assert that I am, infact, entirely worthless!


David Zetland said...

@Adam -- despite your attempts to lower your price (buying opportunity!), I think that you are missing two points: (1) Academic "worth" is disputed. A journal publication, 5,000 words, etc. may be an output that never gets used. That's the same as digging a hole and filling it in. (2) Academics are paid by people who do not need to see value for money in terms of output (the Dean does not read papers; the Dean just counts them...)

I've heard that the average paper is cited less than once (modal citation = 0), but can't find a link. I suspect that number should be presented at the beginning of every graduate program.

Kristina Donnelly said...

I only want to address the parenthetical:

Academic writing is not "worthless" because it never gets cited and a NY Times op/ed is not worth more simply because it's readable to the general public. People who publish journal articles have absolutely no responsibility to make their paper "readable" to the general public (excluding papers that are simply written in poor English/structure - obviously there are SOME standards to be followed).

I think the problem here is "worth" in the sense of "price." The problem is that the people who are supposed to (or can or want to) turn the science into op/eds have little access to these resources; you have to be in academia to read journal articles. NGOs, the public, even government agencies can't even read an issue of Science without going to the local library and digging it up on microfiche (admittedly, I have not done this since 3rd grade, so maybe you CAN'T even do that nowadays).

Anonymous said...

Okay, so let's take it as given that academic output is mostly useless and worthless.

What does that mean for the university system? Academic output is a vital part of the university system which, I think unquestionably, does have value. To some extent, you must conceed that academic output is an important cog in the system and therefore, through this relationship, has worth.

Of course, there are many problems with the system and changing the role of academic output in this system could well lead to improvements. But in the current state of affairs, I still believe it has value.

I'd like you to conceed that rejecting papers because you percieve them as worthless is unconstructive because the current system does have a value and by rejecting you are, in an unconstructive way, damaging the (imperfect but still valuable) system.

By all means, try and change the system but not by rejecting some poor dude's paper because it doesn't fit into your ideas about how the system should look, regardless of how valid those ideas are.

yes? no?


David Zetland said...

@Adam -- (1) I don't think that ALL papers are worthless, only the majority. (2) Universities need to TEACH and many of them spend very little effort on that (incentives) vs research that produces... useless papers.

Universities are great as an idea, but poor execution means that we may be getting 1/3 to 1/2 the output we could, in terms of value for money.

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