Earlier this year, I had an argument with a senior colleague of mine at the university. They said that there is no point teaching undergraduate and master’s students to read the academic research literature, as they would be relying on blogs and QA sites like Stack Overflow in their professional life after graduating.
Earlier this month, at a Dagstuhl seminar, a famous professor challenged me after I had complained of a lack of suitable academic forums to publish certain kinds of papers. They said that the only problem was finding prestigious forums that would look good on a junior academic’s tenure application; apart from that, we can always use widely read blogs such as one run by another famous professor.
Both certainly are correct that blogs have become important forums for both professionals and academics. It is also true that academic publication forums suffer compared to blogs, as they are often behind expensive paywalls and often publishing in them requires a large amount of money.
Indeed, as I am in the process of leaving academia, I find myself less and less interested in following or contributing to the academic publications. Since I am giving up the goal of a tenure track professorship, I do not need to hunt for the prestige of a highly ranked conference or journal. Posting my thoughts in my personal blog, on a separate topical blog that I am considering creating, in a LinkedIn post, or as a Medium post, allows me the potential for a much wider readership than I could hope for in most prestigious academic forums.
The very real downsides of academic publications are not an inherent feature. They are rather the side-effects of well known systematic diseases in the academic world. They are perversions of the system, not how it is supposed to work.
Academic forums have traditionally provided three very real services to the research community:
- They were an efficient channel to communicate, and provided the means to create international scholarly communities, relatively free of geographical biases.
- They still provide a reasonably good filter, letting through only communications that follow community norms.
- They promise to archive the discussions for posterity.
The first point is no longer valid, as there are much more efficient ways to communicate in the community, such as various online forums and blogs.
The second point is important: we still need some way to identify communications that are genuine contributions to the discussion, weeding out not only the lunatic fringe, but also students who are not mature enough yet to contribute, and communications whose main purpose is to gain status instead of contributing. There are blogs and other alt-ac forums that fulfill these criteria, but it is not a systematic part of our wider community.
The third point is crucial: no blog that I am aware of commits to multigenerational archival of its content. There are some attempts to archive the whole of the Internet, but we desperately need a mechanism of long-term archival of the current discussions in both the professional community and in the academic community outside of the journals.
This is my challenge to all of us: build the infrastructure that allows curated archival collections of important discussions.
Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho has been working at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, as a University Teacher in Information Technology (and in other previous roles) since around the beginning of this millennium. He received his PhD degree in 2015 from the same institution. He recently accepted a role in a private company and is currently in the process of migrating from the academia to the industry. This post was first published in his personal blog.