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In a 2020 paper in the Journal of Economic Literature, Heckman and Moktan argue that the obsessive focus on top 5 publications has a deleterious effect on the profession. In addition to documenting the impact a top 5 publication has on career outcomes, they argue that their hold distorts the incentives of junior faculty. For example, junior faculty may scrap a possibly good idea if it can’t get published in a top-five or focus on ideas with a ready made audience on the relevant editorial boards.

In addition to insufficient experimentation/exploration, there are two other consequences we should expect. As departments outsource their promotion and tenure decisions to the editorial boards of the top 5, we should observe an increase in the balkanization of individual departments. One’s colleagues have less of an incentive to engage with one’s own work and conversely. There should also be a decline in the willingness of faculty to contribute to the needs of the department. After all, a department is now merely an ensemble of special interest groups.

A second consequence should be an increase in attempts to subvert the primary goal of the peer review process: to provide disinterested, but, informed assessments of work. One need only look at Computer Science (CS) to see that such a possibility is not far fetched. Unless Economists are immune to the temptations that plague other mortals, we should anticipate the same. Nihar Shah at CMU surveys the problems that beset peer review in CS. Like Economics, there is a small subset of prestige venues for one’s work. Acceptance into these venues affects grants and tenure. The increased stakes have spawned collusive refereeing rings (mutual appreciation societies would be a less perjorative term) that subvert the goal of disinterested, but, informed review. There is also a strong suspicion that there are coalitions of scientists who agree to include each other as co-authors on multiple papers (risk sharing) so as to maximize the chances that they will make it in.

Nihar’s paper discusses various strategies to inoculate peer review against strategic behavior, but none are perfect. The fundamental problem is that the rewards to acceptance in these select venues exceed the expected penalties one might face.

These issues are part of a larger question: what is the optimal organization of scientific activity? The literature on contests, moral hazard and mechanism design focus on the individual effort component, ignoring other aspects such as rewarding discovery vs verification, incentivizing sharing, exploration and the decision to enter scientific work. For example, entry may involve high up front investments in specialized skills. Who will make these investments if the ex-post rewards from doing so are concentrated on a tiny number?

Empire State University today announced a new Division of Linear Algebra and Information. It is the university’s largest program change in decades and helps secure its status among the country’s top Linear Algebra research and training hubs.

“The division will enable students and researchers to tackle not just the scientific challenges opened up by pervasive linear algebra, but the societal, economic, and environmental impacts as well,” the university said.

Empire State is in an elite group with Carnegie Mellon University, MIT, Stanford, and the University of Washington in the caliber and scope of its linear algebra program, said A. N. Other, chief executive of the Plutocrat Institute of Artificial Intelligence, a computer-science professor at the University of Ruritania, and a tech entrepreneur. In creating the new division, Empire State is responding to two issues, Other said. The first is a large, chronic shortage of well-trained linear algebraists. The second is what value a university can add when technical courses are widely available through platforms like Coursera and Udacity. In emphasizing interdisciplinary training among scientists, engineers, social scientists, and humanists, Empire State firmly integrates linear algebra into its prestigious academic offerings, he said.

Empire’s move follows MIT’s announcement last month that it was investing $1 billion in a new college of linear algebra. But leaders at Empire State say their disclosure of the division today was driven by an imminent international search for a director, who will hold the title of associate provost, putting the program on an institutional par with the State’s colleges and schools. They explain that in creating a division rather than a new college, they are reflecting the way linear algebra has become woven into every discipline.

Full article at the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

In a CS paper, it is common to refer to prior work like [1] and [42] rather than Brown & Bunter (1923) or Nonesuch (2001). It is a convention I have followed in my papers with CS colleagues. Upon reflection, I find it irritating and mean spirited.

  1. No useful information is conveyed by the string of numbers masquerading as references beyond the statement: `authors think there are X relevant references.’
  2. A referee wishing to check if the authors are aware of relevant work must scroll or leaf to the end of the paper to verify this.
  3. The casual reader cannot be surprised by some new and relevant reference unless they scroll or leaf to the end of the paper to verify this.
  4. Citations are part of the currency (or drug) we live by. Why be parsimonious in acknowledging the contributions of A. N. Other? It shows a want of fellow feeling.

I suspect that the convention is an artifact of the page limits on conference proceedings. A constraint that seems quaint. Some journals, the JCSS for example, follows the odd convention of referring to earlier work as Bede [22]! But which paper by the venerable and prolific Bede does the author have in mind?

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