Publications backlog

I’m now a bit more than half a year into my second ‘retirement’ from publishing (and I’m not even 35). The first one was when I was working as a developer at GX Creative Online Development 2004-2005 and paid to write code instead of text. In between then and my current job (back to coding), I was working at Nokia Research Center. So naturally I did lots of writing during that time and naturally I changed jobs before things started to actually appear on paper. Anyway, I have just added three items to my publications page. Pdfs will follow later. One of them is a magazine article for IEEE Pervasive Computing I wrote together with my colleagues in Helsinki about the work we have been doing there for the past two years. I’m particularly happy about getting that one out. It was accepted for publication in August and hopefully it will end up on actual dead trees soon. Once IEEE puts the pdf online, I’ll add it here as well. I’ve still got one more journal paper in the pipeline. Hopefully, I’ll get some news on that one soon. After that, I don’t have anything planned but you never know of course.

However, I must say that I’m quite disappointed with the whole academic publishing process, particularly when it comes to journal articles. It’s slow, tedious, the decision process is arbitrary, and ultimately only a handful of people read what you write since most journals come with really tight access control. Typically that doesn’t even happen until 2-3 years after you write it (more in some cases). I suspect the only reason people read my stuff at all is because I’ve been putting the pdfs on my site. I get more hits (80-100 on average) on a few stupid blog posts per day than most of my publications have gotten in the past decade. From what I managed to piece together on Google Scholar, I’m not even doing that bad with some of my publications (in terms of citations). But, really, academic publishing is a really, inefficient way of communication.

Essentially the whole process hasn’t really evolved much since the 17th century when the likes of Newton, Leibniz, et al. started communicating their findings in journals and print. The only qualitative difference between a scientific article and a blog post is so called peer-review (well, it’s a shitload of work to write articles of course). This is sort of like the Slashdot moderation system but performed by peers in the academic community (with about the same bias to the negative) who get to decide what is good enough for whatever workshop, conference or journal magazine you are targeting. I’ve done this chore as well and I would say that like on slashdot, most of the material passing across my desk is of a rather mediocre level. Reading the average proceedings in my field is not exactly fun since 80% tends to be pretty bad. Reading the stuff that doesn’t make it (40-60% for the better conferences) is worse though. I’ve done my bit of flaming on Slashdot (though not recently) and still maintain excellent karma there (i.e. my peers like me there). Likewise, out of 30+ publications on my publication page, only a handful is actually something that I still consider worth my time (writing it).

The reason that there are so many bad articles out there is that the whole process is optimized for meeting mostly quantitative goals universities and research institutes set for their academic staff. To reach these goals, academics organize workshops and conferences with and for each other that provides them with a channel for meeting these targets. The result is workshops full of junior researchers like I once was trying to sell their early efforts. Occasionally some really good stuff is published this way but generally the more mature material is saved for conferences, which have a bit wider audience and more strict reviewing. Finally, the only thing that really counts in the academic world is journal publications.

Those are run by for profit publishing companies that employ successful academics to do the content sorting and peer review coordination for them. Funnily these tend to also be the people running conferences and workshops. Basically, veterans of the whole peer reviewing process. Journal sales is a based on volume (e.g. once a quarter or once a month), reputation, and a steady supply of new material. This is a business model that the publishing industry has perfected over the centuries and many millions of research money flow straight to publishers. It is based on a mix of good enough papers that libraries & research institutes will pay to access and a need of the people in these institutes to get published, which requires access to the published work of others. Good enough is of course a relative term here. If you set the goals too high, you’ll end up not having enough material to make running the journal printing process commercially viable. If you set the goals too low, no-one will buy it.

In other words, top to bottom the scientific publishing process is optimized to keeping most of the academic world employed while sorting out the bad eggs and boosting the reputation of those who perform well. Nothing wrong with that, except for every Einstein, there’s tens of thousands of researchers who will never really publish anything significant or ground breaking who get published anyway. In other words, most stuff published is apparently worth the paper it is printed on (at least to the publishing industry) but not much more. I’ve always found the economics of academic publishing fascinating.

Anyway, just some Sunday morning reflections.

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