Monday, June 09, 2008

Journals and Information Obsolescence

Eldar Fischer pointed me to the following question asked on Slashdot.
With the ability to get information anywhere in the world in seconds, and the virtually immediate obsolescence of any printed work, why are journals such an important part of academic research? Many of these journals take two or more years to print an article after it has been submitted, and the information is very difficult (or expensive) to obtain. Does this hinder technological advancement? There are certainly other venues for peer review, so why journals? What do they offer our society? Are they just a way to evaluate the productivity of professors?
In our Internet world, the stuff we take in on news sites, blogs, podcasts, youtube, instant messages and social networks are all quite instantaneous. That's the great power of the Internet to get information out there to everyone right away. But does this flood of constantly changing information alter our perceptions, make us believe that anything written yesterday has no value and of the "virtually immediate obsolescence of any printed work?"

Academic research works differently. We don't (or shouldn't) focus on the here and now. A theorem I prove today will still be true 50 years from now and in fact was true 50 years ago. The same holds for other fields from our understanding of the universe to our interpretations of Chaucer. The importance of a particular result can vary in time as some specific questions seem important now and for various reasons, good or bad, not important tomorrow. But the theorems remain true forever.

If anything, especially in computer science, we get judged too much for our short term research and not as much for the stuff we do that stands the test of time.

So why journals? To do it right. To write up your work without the immediate need to announce your results or make a conference deadline. To have your work properly vetted, archived, and written in a way that future researchers can understand your work and build upon it.

These days we seem to live in a world where everything two days ago seems not to matter anymore and what we do today will be forgotten two days from now. But good science creates a tower of knowledge where today's blocks rest on what lies below and journal articles tell us how that tower was built so we can better build it higher.


  1. I do not think that the slashdot poster was questioning the importance of publishing the results.

    I totally agree that journals are important, and I have yet to meet a scientist who disagrees, but must they be sold at high cost?

    As for the delay of publication, I have never heard a good explanation as to why years go by between the moment I submit the paper and the day the paper is published. This delay adds little value to the process. No reviewer will work for years on a review.

  2. For me, if a journal paper (or a conference paper), is not available for free online (or through my acm portal subscription), then I will not read it or cite it.

  3. To Anon #2,

    I don't think you always have a choice what to cite or not cite. It's your responsibility to acknowledge relevant work and give proper credit, and make sure you not duplicate previous work.

  4. More importantly, where exactly are these "other venues for peer review". I can't think of even one (apart from conferences, which is also not as instantaneous as the poster might like)

  5. A feature that I like about the journal system is that, when entering a technical area that I do not know much about, I have some heuristic ways of quickly finding the authoritative sources and learning the major results. Typically, I begin with surveys in big name journals, followed by clear landmark papers that are typically the most common ancestors in citation chains. The fact that I am working with authoritative journals makes it feasible to hope that I am avoiding needless repetitions and dubious writings - which has its advantages over getting lost in millions of dubious web pages (which may well be putting information out there instantaneously and for free). Of course, what I am saying only applies to the process of major research results (and not something like protocols or tutorials on writing specific types of computer programs).

  6. I don't think you always have a choice what to cite or not cite. It's your responsibility to acknowledge relevant work and give proper credit, and make sure you not duplicate previous work.

    If you've read a certain relevant paper then obviously you have a responsibility to cite it. However, I fail to see any obligation to cite things you haven't read (or read about). You run the risk of duplicating prior work, but that's always a possibility -- we're just talking about varying degrees here. Anyone who ventures outside of their own little niche runs this risk. I believe there are famous examples of this; for example, I've heard Feynman mentioned in this regard, although I don't remember the specific reference.

    Of course, if your entire paper represents prior work, then you open yourself up to ridicule. But the journal system won't necessarily save you in this regard. I've read complaints from people in the social sciences about published papers by physicists applying techniques from some area of mathematical physics to economic or social processes, where the same mathematical models are already well established in the native literature (although using different nomenclature).

  7. It's one thing to not know about prior work in another field because of different nomenclature and notation. Chances are your work is not going to look like theirs anyway, at least at first glance. Still, if you're a physicist doing work in economics, at least you should have the decency to consult some knowledgeable economists to see if you're re-inventing the wheel. It's arrogance otherwise.

    Now, it's another matter entirely to claim ignorance of another paper because it's not free, or you're too lazy to go the library to get it. That's just lazy research. And laziness can result in your peers being very unhappy with you.

  8. Lance says: Good science creates a tower of knowledge ...

    More plausibly, the scientific literature has created a "dense fog of knowledge" ... and somewhere in that fog, there's a tower! :)

  9. Heh.

    Author: "I didn't bother to read or cite the key paper in the area, because it was in a journal that wasn't free online."

    Programme Chair: "We regret to inform you that your paper was rejected. Although the work was interesting, there was a complete disconnect to the prior work in the area, and the paper essentially replicated work that has already been done several times, but with several simple errors corrected in prior research..."