Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Publish or Perish


I just read the following fascinating paper, which surveys developments in control theory (my field of research) over the past 40 years.

Willems, J.C. “In control, almost from the beginning until the day after tomorrow,” European Journal of Control, vol. 13, 2007, pp. 71-81.

I like review papers like this one, because they offer "big picture" view of a topic or area of research rather than the myopic details of a particular result. Reading review papers gives me a sense of movement--where things have come from and where they are heading--and a sense of what is lacking--where more research is needed to expand understanding of a particular topic.

First, a minute biography of J.C. Willems. Willems entered the field of control theory as a Ph.D. student at M.I.T. in 1965. Upon graduating, he completed a one-year postdoctoral research position at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. and was hired as a Professor of Electrical Engineering at M.I.T. In 1973 Willems was appointed Professor of Mathematics (specializing in systems and control) at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, where he has remained to this day. In 2003, Groningen named him Emeritus Professor.

Willems' full curriculum vitae would consume dozens of pages. He has supervised numerous doctoral students, organized academic conferences, and served as head of his academic department at Groningen, president of the Dutch Mathematical Society, president of the European Union Control Association, managing editor of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) Journal of Control for 5 years, managing editor of Systems and Control Letters for 15 years. In short, he's the shit. He's done a ton of work and made a significant contribution to the field. So people pay attention when he offers his summary of what has been learned in the past four decades, where mistakes have been made, and where new research emphasis needs to be placed.

But this blog entry is not about control theory. It's about the feverish "publish or perish" mentality that is present in universities today. I found it interesting that Willems decided to specifically address this issue in his paper--since "publish or perish" has not always been the modus operandi of higher education. Willems' tenth section, ominously titled "The Bureaucracy," explains the rise of the "publish or perish" mindset, its advantages, and its pitfalls.

Apparently, back in the day (1970s)...
The departments left researchers in peace, the university left the departments in peace, the [government] left the universities in peace… There were no annual reports to write. The system was based on trust.

But this trust was abused. The system was inefficient. Many academics interpreted the clause that research was part of their job as a friendly mild suggestion, but active researchers could concentrate on their work.
The lackadaisical approach of the 70s is long gone. "Publish or perish" has arrived.
Thirty years later, these matters have completely changed. There are continuous reports, evaluations, rankings, and visitations... the system is managed on all levels. Researchers are under great pressure to publish and compete for grants and contracts.

I know that 25 years ago, I would have defended the need for more evaluations in the educational and research system. I shiver from what it has come to.
"Publish or perish" is not all bad, however.
There are, for sure, positive things that have come out of all these. Essentially everybody contributes. Idleness is frowned upon. Teaching is done with more care and thought. The number of Ph.D. students, especially in engineering, has become much larger.
But an overemphasis on publication has given rise to some ridiculous attitudes in the way scientists work.
The [European Union] science directorate distributes substantial grants… the two main characteristics required for research programs to qualify for EU support are collaboration and excellence. The collaboration idea is based on the belief that if you tie 2 bricks together, they will float, and if you tie 20 bricks together, they will fly… All researchers involved are excellent. Excellence is defined as substantially above average. For the EU, it sometimes seems like everybody can be above average.
On equating number of publications with quality of a researcher:
Of course some counting, as citations, collects significant information, but only when combined with sober judgment. But many of the measures which scientists are subjected to are caricatures.

It is not unreasonable to assume that somebody who publishes two papers a year does a lot more research than someone who publishes two papers in 5 years… But it is absurd to assume that someone who publishes ten papers a year does five times as much research than someone who publishes two papers a year.

I often wonder what the purpose really is of the enormous publication activity that goes on. Journals and conferences multiply in size and number. The work involved in preparing publications comes for a large part at the expense of time to think. In science, more writing goes together with less reading.

I miss the emphasis on breadth and depth, on quality rather than quantity, on synthesis of ideas, on debate and scrutiny rather than passive attendance of presentations, and on reflection rather than activity.
It sounds like balance is the key, and balance is not yet the standard in academia. The pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other. Time and critical decisions are needed to bring things to a healthy midpoint.

Hat tip: Romeo Ortega
Shameless plug: the image of equations at the top of this post is a screen shot from my prelim document.

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