Academic Research and CS Innovation


Today the faculty received a note from the library which began:

There are 2 journals that are very expensive that I would like cancel if your department agrees. They are:

Theoretical Computer Science QA 267 .T46
Science of Computer Programming QA 76.6 .S427

They are a package from Elsevier and cost us $6,028 per year.

This note epitomizes, for me, the problem with the whole academic publishing business. It seems ludicrous to me that we continue to use this distribution model when it is (a) so expensive and (b) so restrictive in its distribution. We've created an entire ecosystem based not on what is useful and good, but on whether or not we can convince a handful of other people that what we've written is sufficiently sophisticated to publish in their journals. How did those people reach that position? By convincing earlier folks of the same thing. These journals are so expensive that no one has access to them. What's worse, the material in them is rarely online and thus are not really "available" as we understand the term in 2004.

At one time, academic journals played an important role. Research was (and maybe still is) about innovation and journals were the distribution medium as well as the ranking mechanism. They were, in some sense, the first Google because they helped solved the problem of deciding what to pay attention to. The peer review process is the academic journal's form of pagerank. Ideally, peer review filters ideas so that those worthy of being read are passed through to the readers. Often however, peer review takes on the feel of being caught up in the folk tale of The Emperor's New Cloths. The world has entered the 21st century and academic researchers are stuck in a world largely crafted in the 19th.

I love doing research and I love writing. Moreover, I love letting others hear about and hopefully get some benefit from what I do. Academic publishing does not serve that purpose, so I blog. In fact, the primary purpose academic publishing serves is to provide a metric for promotion and tenure. That's not an unworthy goal, but it is entirely artificial. When I think about the thousands and thousands of CS researchers in the 200 or so PhD granting institutions spending their time and energy to generate publications in this artificial, restrictive environment, I'm struck that society pays a high price indeed for this metric.

The price is twofold

  • First, the academic publishing system ensures that almost no one will see what you write. Further, because of copyright restrictions in almost all the large journals, you're usually not allowed to even distribute it yourself.
  • Second, the academic publishing system ensures that there is a strong barrier placed between academic researchers and other innovative efforts in CS and IT.

The last point is unique to CS, at least among the scientific disciplines, as far as I can tell. There is no large group of people that I know of doing innovative work in Chemistry or Physics, for example outside of those who publish regularly in the academic journals that support those disciplines. Sure there are some amateur astronomers and so on, but this pales in comparison to the large group of people building innovative software. This is probably because doing innovative things on a computer is relatively cheap, safe, and accessible. When I listen to people from the non-academic group talk about their work, I have a tough time distinguishing it in many cases from the work going on around me at the University except that they don't start their papers with an obligatory section filled with greek symbols.

My fear in all of this is that academic CS researchers will become more and more marginalized over time. Universities were once the home of almost all open source projects and much of the software we use in the Internet everyday (think BIND, Sendmail, DNS) has its roots in academic work. That's not the case anymore and that's probably a good thing. There are lots of people building cool things and I like that.

Still, what's the role of academic researchers in this game? I don't know. I'd like to see the innovative work happening everywhere to be cross pollenating. I think the current system is broken, but I don't see clear alternatives that also will serve as a metric that academic departments need. I'm confident, however, that things are evolving rapidly and if academic CS researchers want to play in the IT innovation game, we're going to have to adapt.