Are professors too paper-happy?

[Update (4/26/2006): Motivation]

I've received several emails/comments (mostly from researchers and professors) regarding this post and realized some may have misconstrued my intentions for writing this article. I don't blame them. The title sounds pretty controversial and this post is quite long – compelling readers to skim and consequently miss some of the points I'm trying to make. As I mention in the second paragraph, 'I'm a huge fan of publications. The more the better.' All I'm trying to do here is make the case for why I think researchers should ALSO use more informal avenues of communication, such as blogs, for getting their ideas out for public review/commenting. These sources would not only increase reach/access, but serve as great supplementary material to their corresponding conference papers – NOT as replacements or alternatives to publications. I received a very insightful idea from Hari Balakrishnan – What if authors, in conjunction with their papers, release informal 5-6 page summaries of their projects/ideas for online public review/commenting? I would love to have resources like these available to me when dissecting the insight/knowledge encapsulated in formalized papers. I think simple ideas like these would significantly improve reachability/access of our research and even encourage more creativity/questioning.

[End Update]

On Digg:

I recently read through a professor's CV, which under the 'Publications' section stated "… published over 100 conference papers." I then proceeded to the next page of the resume to scan through some of his paper titles, only to see a brand new section titled 'References'. Wait, where'd his publications go? I went back to see if I missed a page. Nope. Wow … why wouldn't he include his citations or mention notable pieces of work? I mean, saying you have 100+ publications gives me no value unless you're going to list them. Granted, that's an amazing accomplishment – writing a paper that advances (cs) research is not only time consuming and hard work, but it requires a whole new level of creativity. Additionally, conferences are getting super competitive (unless he's publishing in these conferences) – I hear many cases of famous, tenured professors/researchers getting their papers rejected. Now multiplying this paper process by 100 represents a significant amount of research, so I'm willing to bet this guy is pretty bright. However, this one line publication description gives me the impression that this professor aims for quantity in order to amplify his prestige. I also get this feeling after publishing the 100th paper he reached one of those hard set goals that gives one the sense of 'Mission Accomplished'. I guess I'm different – I'm all about quality. Personally, I'd be content with 2 publications in my life if one of 'em got me the Turing Award and the other a date with Heidi Klum – but that's just me 🙂

Interestingly (or oddly), this CV publication description also got me thinking about some of the things I hate about (cs) papers. But first, let me make it very clear – I am a huge fan of conference publications. The more the better. The peer review process of research papers is absolutely critical to advancing science. In this post, however, I would like to make the case for why I think all researchers should ALSO use more informal avenues of communication (such as blogs, wikipedia, etc.) for publicly broadcasting their ideas and results of their latest research.

So let's start this off with a laundry list of gripes I have about 'most' papers (with possible alternatives/solutions mixed in):

PDF/PS/Sealed/doc/dvi/tex formats

  • That load time for the viewer is killer – probably deters many from even clicking the link
  • Certain viewers render diagams/text differently
  • The document looks formal, intimidating, elitist, old, plain, hardcore, not happy to see you
  • Also makes documents feel permanent, finalized, not amenable to changes
  • Provides no interface for commenting by readers – and in many cases I find reader critiques more interesting/useful than the actual paper
  • And why can't we see the feedback/comments from the conference?
  • Not pretty – It's a lot of material to read, so why not make the presentation look happier? I seriously think a nice stylesheet/web layout for paper content would significantly improve readability and portability

It's a lot of work

  • Not only does one need to come up with a fairly original idea, but research, discuss, and analyze its empirical/theoretical implications
  • Needs support/citations
  • Papers are quite formulaic – I can easily guess the page that has the nice/pretty graphs
  • This structure imposes pretty big research burdens on the authors
  • This is a GOOD thing for paper quality
  • But a terrible method for prototyping (similar to how UI dev's quickly prototype designs to cycle in user feedback)
  • Doesn't provide professors/researchers a forum to quickly get ideas out nor to filter in comments
  • Also prevents researchers from spewing their thoughts out since they wish to formalize everything in papers
  • Now there are other journals/magazines which are informal to let researchers publish their brainstorming/wacky idea articles
  • But there's still a time delay in getting those articles published
  • They still have writing standards and an approval process
  • And I don't read them (Where do I find good informal CS articles online? Is anyone linking to these? Who's authoring them?)
  • In blogs, authors can be comedic, speak freely ("he's full of it", "that technique is a load of crap" – opinions like these embedded in technical articles would making reading so much more enjoyable), and quickly get to the point without having to exhaust the boring implementation details


  • Although papers normally include author emails, this means feedback is kept privately in the authors' inboxes, not viewable to the general public
  • Many papers/journals require subscriptions/fees


  • The main issue here is professors/researchers want to publish in prestigious papers/journals
  • Rather than waste their time with things like weblogs, which are perceived to be inherently biased and non-factual, and where the audience may seem 'dumber'
  • It's in their best interest to focus on publications – get tenure, fame, approval from experts in the field

I want informality

  • But it sucks for us ('us' being the general audience who may wish to learn about these breakthroughs)
  • I love hearing professors ramble off their ideas freely
  • I want to see commentary from readers and myself ON these articles
  • And I want to see these ideas get posted and updated quickly
  • I want to see these experts explaining their ideas in simple terms (whenever possible, if it's too hardcore then it's probably not very good bloggable material) and describe the real world impacts/examples
  • But unfortunately NONE of my favorite professors/researchers publish their ideas on blogs

Popularity and Reach

  • There isn't much linkability happening for papers (besides from class/professor web sites)
  • You don't see conference papers getting linked on Slashdot/Digg
  • If millions of geeks don't even want to link/read this stuff, how and why would others? (refer below to the concluding section for why I think this is important)
  • Papers are formal, old-school, and designed to be read by expert audiences
  • They are written to impress, be exhaustive/detailed, when in reality most of us are lazy, want to read something entertaining, and get to the dang point
  • Wouldn't it be nice if professors/researchers expressed their ideas/research in a bloggish manner whenever possible?
  • At best a blog post would be a great supplemental/introductorial reading to the actual paper
  • Even the conference panel can check the blog comments to see if they missed anything
  • Some professors express their ideas informally with lecture notes and powerpoint presentations
  • But again, these formats don't let others annotate it with their comments
  • They are mostly pdf/ps/ppt/doc's (ah that load time)
  • And lecture notes usually exist for core concepts, not experimental/recent ideas


  • Which brings me up another interesting idea
  • Where's THE place to learn about core, fundamental cs topics?
  • Or even slightly maturing cs algorithms/techniques?
  • I tend to follow this learning process:
    • Check Wikipedia
    • At best gives me a great introduction to a topic
    • If i need more, I use what I learned from wikipedia/other sources to build queries for searching lecture notes/presentations
    • Typically the interesting details are hidden in a set of lecture notes/papers/books
    • And which of these sources should I use? – I have to read many versions coming from different professors to piece together a clear story
  • Wouldn't it be nice to have a one stop shop
  • Wikipedia!
  • What if Universities MOTIVATED professors/researchers to collaborate on wikipedia to publish in-depth articles regarding their areas of interest?
  • This would be huge
  • Wikipedia is incredibly popular/useful/successful, so let's use it as the place where professors around the world can unite their knowledge
  • Would be the best supplement (even replacement) for lecture notes
  • And for more experimental/controversial topics, researchers can use individual blogs

A slight digression and concluding remarks: The Future of Computer Science Research

Two things:

  1. I strongly believe the future of (computer) science relies on making our stuff more accessible to others – requiring us to tap formal AND informal avenues of communication
  2. We need to be more interdisciplinary!

Many people (especially prospective computer science students) ask me:

What's left to invent?

  • Most research to them (and me) sounds like 'optimizations' based work
  • Is there anything revolutionary left to do? Has it all been accomplished?
  • This is a hard question to answer convincingly, especially since if there was something revolutionary left to do, someone (hopefully me) would be on it
  • It's also difficult to forsee the impacts of ongoing research
  • Big ideas/inventions are evolutionary, piecing together decades of work.

They even say … "if only I could go back in time and invent the TV, PC, Internet, Web Search …"

  • As if back in the day we were living in the stone age and there was so many things left to do
  • There are even more things left to do today!

Our goal should not be to come up with an idea that surpasses the importance of say the invention of the PC

  • (I'm not even sure if this is possible, and at best is an ill comparison to make)
  • But rather to learn about the problems people face NOW and use our knowledge of science to solve them
  • Research should be entrepreneurial: Find a customer pain and provide a method to solve it
  • Not the other way around: Playing with super geeky stuff for fun and hoping later it might have applications (there are exceptions to this, since it encourages depth/exploration of a field which may lead to an accidental discovery of something huge, but I still think for the most part this is the wrong way to go about research)
  • Your audience is the most important element of research
  • And the beauty of our field – IT is a common theme in every research area!
  • We're the common denominator!
  • We can go about improving research in any subject

Now getting back to focus …

  • We consider the PC, Internet, etc. to be revolutionary because they are intuitive, fundamental platforms
  • Current research adds many layers of complexity to these ideas in order to solve more difficult problems
  • Making things more and more complex
  • What we need to be doing better is making our complex systems easier to use
  • We need better integration
  • And expand our research applications into other fields, rather than just reinforcing them back into computer science areas
  • We need to be interdisciplinary!
  • We have yet to even touch the surface when it comes to exploring the overlaps of fields

Some of the things we've been brewing since the 1970's could seriously REVOLUTIONIZE other industries

  • Imagine machine learning a database filled with all past medical histories/records/diagnostic reports
    • So when presented with symptoms/readings of a new patient, the system will tell you what that patient is suffering from with high probability based off analyzing millions of records
    • This would dramatically decrease the number of cases of death due to bad diagnosis and lower medical/insurance costs since it wouldn't be necessary to run a bunch of expensive scans/tests and surgeries to figure out what's wrong with a patient
  • A similar system could do the same thing over economics, disease, environmental, hazards datasets so that scientists and policy makers can ask questions like 'In the next five years what region of the world has the highest probability of a natural disaster … or a disease epidemic?, etc.'
    • This would be huge in shaping policy priorities, saving human lives, and preparing/preventing disasters like Katrina from ever escalating
  • Or what about mobile ad hoc networks to let villages in the poorest regions of the world wirelessly share an internet connection
  • Or sensor networks to do environmental sensing, health monitoring in hospitals, traffic control, pinpointing the location of a crime, etc.
  • And plenty, plenty more

The attractive elements of computer science research is not necessarily the algorithms, nor the programming implementation

  • But rather the intelligence/knowledge it can provide to humans after partying on data
  • Information is what makes a killer application!
  • And every field has tons of interesting information
  • We need to INTERACT and learn more about the needs in other fields and shape our research accordingly
  • (Unfortunately, computer scientists have a somewhat bad reputation when it comes to any form of 'interaction')

So after hearing all this, the prospective science students complain:

  • "Now we have to learn about multiple fields – our research burden is so much bigger than the scientists' in the past"
  • This is a very silly argument for defending one's laziness to pursue (computer) science
  • I mean I much rather hear one of them 'I don't want to get outsourced to India' excuses 🙂
  • Here's why:
    • We got it GOOD
    • I mean, geez, we got Google!
    • I can't even begin to imagine what Einstein, Gauss, Turing, Newton, etc. could have accomplished if they had the information research tools we got
    • We could have flying cars, cleaner environment, robots doing our homework
    • Heck, they could have probably of found a way to achieve world peace
    • We take what we have for granted
  • Back in the day, where there was no email, no search, no unified, indexed repository of publications
  • Scientists had to do amazing amounts of research just to find the right sources to learn from
  • Travel around the world to meet with leading researchers
  • Read entire books to find relevant information
  • You see, scientists back then had no choice but to be one-dimensional, and those who went deep into different fields either had no lives or were incredibly brilliant (most likely both)
  • But we can do all this work they had to do just to prepare for learning in a matter of seconds, from anywhere!
  • It's utter crap to think we can't learn about multiple fields of interest, in-depth
  • And our research tools will only get better and better exponentially faster
  • But I don't blame these students for their complaint
  • We're still trained to be one-dimensional
  • Universities have specific majors and graduate programs (although some of these programs are SLOWLY mixing together)
  • Thereby requiring many high school students to select a single major on the admissions application
  • Even though their high school (which focuses on breadth) probably did a terrible job introducing them to liberal arts and science
  • [Side Note: Actually, this is one of things I never quite understood. How do students choose a major like EE/NuclearEng/MechEng on the admissions application, when their high school most likely doesn't offer any of those courses? Sounds like their decision came down to three factors (1) The student is a geek (2) Parent's influence (3) Money. 2/3 of these are terrible reasons to enter these fields. Even worse, many universities separate engineering from liberal arts, making it almost impossible for a student who originally declared 'Economics' to switch to BioE after taking/liking a biotech class – despite the fact that their motivation to enter the major is so much better. You should enter a field you love, and making the decision on which students can enter engineering majors based off high school, which gives you almost zero exposure to these fields, makes no sense. And we wonder why we have a shortage of good engineers … well one reason is probably because we don't let them into the university programs – 'them' being the ones who actually realized they liked this stuff when they got to college.]
  • Many job descriptions want students/applicants with skills pertaining to one area

But unfortunately the problems we now face require us to understand how things mix together

  • This is why it's very important we increase the levels communications between fields to promote interdisciplinary research
  • Like a simple example: Databases and IR
    • Both have the same goal: To answer queries accurately regarding a set of data
    • Despite this, they are seen as two traditionally separate areas
    • Database/IR people normally work on different floors/buildings at companies/universities
    • One system is based traditionally more on logic while the other is more statistical/probablistic
    • But exploiting their overlap could greatly improve information access (a la SQL Server 2005)
    • Notice this example refers to two subtopics under just computer science, not even two mainstream fields!
  • Just imagine the impacts of collaborating more with other fields of study

This is why I feel blogging, wikipedia, and informal avenues of communicating our thoughts/research/ideas is very important

  • So that people in other fields can read them
  • And for the laundry list of reasons above
  • Even if it's just a proof of concept technique with no empirical studies
  • An interested geek reader who came across the blog post might just end up coding it up for you
  • Could even inspire start-up companies

So the POINT: Do whatever you can to voice your ideas/research to the largest possible audience in the hopes of cross fertilizing research in many fields.

* So what's up with the parentheses around 'cs' and 'computer' in this post? Well, many of these points generalize to all (science) research publications 🙂

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License



4 thoughts on “Are professors too paper-happy?

  1. I received a very insightful email from Prof. Joe Hellerstein regarding this post –

    Many good thoughts there. Follow through!

    Personally, I don’t blog my ideas because I don’t have time. (BTW,
    blogs haven’t changed things *that* much for computer scientists. I used
    to bat around ideas on usenet a lot back in grad school — in
    comp.databases.theory, for example. Now in English lit or for that
    matter in political opinion-making, the authors and audiences didn’t
    know how to use Usenet back in the 80’s and 90’s, so it’s more different
    there.) There’s a big role for informal interaction as opposed to
    papers, but in grad school I eventually found it more fruitful to talk
    things over verbally with my officemates, and these days with my
    colleagues in a variety of areas like networking, algorithms and AI as
    well. In short, I chose my correspondents more and more carefully as my
    time became more and more precious. Surround yourself with smart people
    and you may find the randoms on the internet less and less useful.

    In a different direction, blogs could serve an interesting role in
    teaching. Teachers can blog for the benefit of their students, but this
    scales only so far — you can’t engage with too many people
    electronically, any more than you can in person. Better is to have the
    students blog — I learned a ton about both content and presentation by
    defending my ideas on Usenet back in college and grad school. (More
    from the jazz newsgroup than the cs newsgroups, actually.) There is
    some good trial by fire involved in publishing and defending/explaining
    your publications.

    WRT crossing fields, I think certain very agile people do indeed find it
    relatively easy. But most people (including some very bright people)
    find it difficult and/or insufficiently rewarding to pursue. One of the
    keys to doing it efficiently is to build personal relationships with
    experts in other fields, so they can help you efficiently figure out the
    details that matter and the ones you can ignore. Most of the time it
    takes to get into a field involves this kind of winnowing. If you can
    shortcut that by leaning on colleagues, you can get a lot more done, a
    lot faster.

  2. And another comment from a renown scientist (which I’ll leave anonymous for now):

    Sorry, just got around to it. Well written. I would add though that publications serve an additional purpose, which is to “prove”
    that the author is working. Too often, there is no visible difference between somebdoy who is thinking and somebody who is
    asleep. You would not like to talk to somebody who was asleep, would you? In the same way, publications serve as a reminder
    that these people are “awake”. They may repeat the same things, or say slightly different things, but their colleagues know that
    they can talk to them.

    Even though this sounds like a purely social purpose, in the world that academics live in, this is important. People outside academia
    may have a hard time understanding it …

    Though I think that the days of academia as we know it are somewhat numbered anyway, and we’ll have in the next decade or two a system
    where there’ll be no tenure and people will drift in and out of academia and ndustry with ease.

  3. Hi —

    I do think that academic publishing is out of control, but I’m also not a huge fan of blogs as an alternative. Back in the paleolithic era of the ARPA funding of the sixties when a lot of deep invention got done, there were a variety of ways to communicate what was going on. The basic idea about “real papers” was to communicate a real result about something important, and the community helped with what “real” and “important” meant. These were usually first published locally as TRs (technical reports) and were very often preceded by TMs (technical memos) which were usually short and about ideas and directions.

    For example, the MIT AI memos and TRs are on-line, and these give an idea of the high quality of both. I.e. the amount of thought that went into a “quick” memo was quite higher and deeper than most blogs I’ve seen.

    John McCarthy (I think of him as one of the truly great figures in our field) is a good example of a user of a number of forms for his ideas. He wrote some of best papers ever (they were pretty short and amazingly comprehensive and original), TRs, AIMemos, and also used a blog like form for his musings about civilization and other subjects.

    Doug Engelbart had much of what is needed for the Internet figured out and demoed in the late 60s.

    Ivan Sutherland is a perfect example of a science/engineer who only publishes every once in a while, but each one has been seminal, and most have led to new subfields.

    One way to look at the current situation is that the field has developed an impoverished notion of what constitutes reasonable work, and this means that the possibility of the sofware side of things becoming a real science or engineering discipline is getting dimmer and dimmer. Right now it seems more like a pop culture of teen-agers trying to say “I’m here too!” with academia’s and startup’s version of graffiti.

    For example, if the current wave starting in the 90s had any sense of history or destiny, I would not have to be typing this through a tiny blog keyhole because the people who did and are doing the browsers couldn’t take the trouble to see what had already been done about authorable media on personal computers. Yikes!

    Best wishes,


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