Cioran on Academic Writing’s ‘Forms of Vulgarity’

In ‘The Addict of Memoirs’ (from Drawn and Quartered, Arcade Publishing, New York, 1983/2012), E. M. Cioran writes:

Is there a better sign of “civilization” than laconism? To stress, to explain, to prove–so many forms of vulgarity.

Bergson is said to have said–somewhere–that time spent in refutation is time wasted¹. There is, evidently, a sympathy between these pronouncements that I make note of. Cioran suggests laconic forms of expression avoid three undignified sins that burden our writing. For in stressing, in explaining, in striving to prove–requirements placed upon us by the need to persuade, to change minds, to engage dialectically–we may go far afield of our original intentions were in writing. We write to communicate but only secondarily to persuade; what matter if we don’t?

Cioran’s assessment of the dialectical aspects of writing are harsh but rare is the academic writer who would not heave a sigh of relief were he or she to be spared their burdens. Consider, for instance, the trappings of academic writings: the elaborate piling on of references in opening sections to indicate–to referees, almost never to readers–that adequate scholarship is on display, the careful invocation of select objections and their refutation to shore up the central thesis presented. the footnoting to account for shades of meaning or to point to subsidiary debates, the careful setting of the stage for the presentation of the thesis, and so on. Such is  the overhead these place on any piece of academic writing that a common complaint made by readers–even if not always verbally articulated–is that a little too much fluff obscured the author’s central points. (I’m not discounting the importance of the references the author-researcher provides to future scholars in the field; merely that these accouterments are, at one level,  entirely peripheral to the points made by the writer and are only present because of the location of the writing within a particular social structure of inquiry. And as my nod to referees above indicates, within the context of a system of peer-review these considerations can quickly fade into insignificance.)

These ‘forms of vulgarity’ may too, force writers into forms of expression they are not competent at. Not everyone can explain or refute or prove as well as they can state a bold or original thesis; to indulge in these can weaken the work presented, which is both the writer’s and the reader’s loss. The provision of a claim or thesis in splendid isolation may be as productive–if not more–of thought as the provision of an elaborate package of arguments, objections, counter-objections, refutations, and so on; if we are to suggest further avenues of inquiry or to cut to the heart of the matter, a concise, powerful, and laconic statement may work best. Perhaps the reader can construct objections and see if the thesis presented stands up to them. Perhaps the writer and the reader–together–may then bring the writer’s work to fruition. Which is how it normally goes, in any case.

Note #1: I would appreciate a reference so I can reassure myself I’ve not made up this line.

The Missed Rejoinder: Memorable For All The Wrong Reasons

A few years ago, I served as a referee for the National Science Foundation, reading and evaluating grant proposals, and hopefully, being fair to the hopeful applicants. Once I had submitted my preliminary report, I traveled to Washington DC for a final meeting with other referees for that round of funding; we met over two days to classify the proposals into three categories that read something like ‘Funding Certain’ ‘Undecided’ and finally, ‘Reject.’ Unsurprisingly, our discussions were quite vigorous with frequent disagreements, and sometimes contention, on display. During one of these disputes, after I had finished stating why I thought a proposal to fund a mentoring workshop for junior faculty didn’t look sufficiently well put-together, articulated, or planned, a fellow referee, a professor from a private university, one clearly committed to getting the proposal through and over the finish line, delved into the ad-hominem during his attempted refutation, concluding with, ‘Let me tell you something pal, you’ve led a sheltered life!’

Before I could respond, another member of the panel correctly pointed out the personally offensive nature of that sort of remark, called for calm, and our deliberations continued. The proposal was eventually funded.

I was seething though and continued to for a long while. (As the writing of this post shows, perhaps I never stopped.) The funding of the proposal wasn’t what had upset me. Rather, I had not had a chance to say what I wanted in response, which in unvarnished form would have gone something like this:

I’ve led a sheltered life? Excuse me? I left home twenty years ago and came to this country as an immigrant, finished ten years of graduate school with inconsistent funding, sometimes working on the side to make ends meet; I studied in one of America’s worst inner cities; I teach in a public university; and you, a man who enjoys the privilege of his race and teaches in a private university, you’re telling me I’ve led a sheltered life. Why don’t you–pardon my French–go take a flying fuck at the moon?

And then, I would have dramatically pushed my chair back, and walked out of the conference room.

In my dreams.

What is it about the missed rejoinder, the missed opportunity for the perfect comeback, that galls us so? Why do the burrs left under our saddles by moments like that continue to aggravate us in particularly and peculiarly painful ways? I don’t think any great rhetorical point was scored by my opponent; I wasn’t humiliated; I wasn’t refuted; the pompous twit did get reprimanded in a fashion; and perhaps anyone with a modicum of intelligence in that room saw that his remark was uncalled for and ridiculous. (No one, however, came up to me after the meeting to say as much.)

The problem, I suppose, is that we carry around too many memories like these; life throws us into close proximity, too often for our comfort, into the company of those that are quick with the personally hurtful quip. The man suggesting I had lived a ‘sheltered life’ had somehow found, unerringly, the one assessment of me that would cut deep. And the only way we know of fighting back at that moment is to retaliate in kind. When that opportunity is denied, perhaps because we weren’t quick enough on the draw, perhaps because peacekeepers step in, we are denied our moment of release. And forgiving and forgetting and  moving on has never been easy.

Turn Down the Comments; We’re Talking Science Here

A couple of days ago, Popular Science decided to turn off comments on news articles. In a blog post, Suzanne LaBarre explained why:

Comments can be bad for science. That’s why, here at PopularScience.com, we’re shutting them off….[W]e are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former,diminishing our ability to do the latter….[E]ven a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story, recent research suggests….[A]s Brossard and coauthor Dietram A. Scheufele wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.
Another, similarly designed study found that just firmly worded (but not uncivil) disagreements between commenters impacted readers’ perception of science.

If you carry out those results to their logical end–commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded–you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch.

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

Many blogs do not have comments turned on for a variety of reasons, though I think Popular Science‘s rationale is the first I’ve heard from a public policy perspective. It is seemingly an ironic one: isn’t science supposed to flourish in an open atmosphere of review? Well, no. I left off the word ‘peer’ in there. Those who comment negatively on science stories–and I mean the ones that think evolution is ‘just a theory’ for instance–are not peers; more often than not, they are ignoramuses with a political axe to grind.   They are not offering constructive critique; they are actively seeking a proscription on the dissemination of scientific knowledge.

I do not mean to suggest  that peer review in science or in academia works perfectly. Indeed, I have suggested, in the past, that in many ways, it is a broken system (here; here; here; and here). But whatever its faults, it will not be fixed by opening the field to those whose agenda runs directly counter to that of the academy, no matter what the discipline.

I have often advocated open peer-review in the sciences (and other fields as well): place draft research articles in an open forum, invite comments and critique, let the author take the article off-line for revision and then place back online for ‘ final publication.’  Such a system will obviously only work if commenters on the article are suitably qualified peers. The editors could vet them and then allow anonymous comments as well.

I do not know if Popular Science‘s policy will be followed by other science forums on the net but at the least it is a depressing reminder of the Internet’s dark side.

Note: In a future post, I will offer some thoughts on Internet commentary in general.

The Scandal of Closed Access to Taxpayer Funded Research

On January 21, Timothy Gowers of Cambridge announced he would no longer publish papers in Elsevier’s journals or serve as a referee or editor for them. This boycott has now been joined by thousands of other researchers. (I don’t referee any more for Elsevier, though I have in the past, and I certainly won’t be sending any papers there.) Thanks to the furore created by three Fields Medal winners–Timothy Gowers, Terence Tao, Wendelin Werner–participating in the boycott, many now know what academics have known for a very long time: academic publishing is a scandal. Indeed, it is more than a scandal; it is a racket which is nothing short of criminal. Before we go any further, here is a number to chew on: in 2010, ‘Elsevier reported a 36 percent profit on revenues of $3.2 billion.’

How does this system work? Consider this. Elsevier, or for that matter, any journal publishing house, publishes ‘content.’ Academic content, the results of research conducted by university academics the world over; much of this research is funded by taxpayer money. This research is written up in papers, and sent to journal editorial boards for review. These boards are staffed by unpaid academics, who, after preliminary review, send out papers to be reviewed by other unpaid academics. (When I say ‘unpaid,’ I mean they are not compensated by the journals for their work.) The paper, if accepted by the referee and the editor, is then sent back to the authors who typesets it, prepares a camera-ready copy, and sends it back for publishing. The publishing house, after making authors sign forms handing over copyright to them, then prints the article in the latest issue of the relevant journal, and sells subscriptions to that journal for thousands of dollars per year to libraries at the same universities where their editorial board and reviewing staff work.

So, this material is not open-access any more; it is closed behind a ‘pay-wall.’ If you don’t have a paid subscription, you don’t get to view the published research. If your library, at say, a public university like the City University of New York, is experiencing budget problems, and library funding suffers cutbacks, well, tough tits. You don’t get to view the published research. If you, as a professor, or graduate student, decided to freely distribute the papers, you may be embroiled in copyright infringement disputes. If you are a taxpayer that funded this research, but cannot afford the journal subscription, well, tough tits again. Go rustle up the bucks. Knowledge should be open and available to all, you say? Talk to my accountant; because the face, it ain’t listening.

This is a gigantic rip-off, a racket, a robbery. It is exploitation–primarily of the academic promotion and tenure process and taxpayer money–on a scale that beggars belief. The stench from this should make every thinking person hold his or her nose. And act to make sure this cannot persist.

Right now, the US House and Senate are considering the Federal Research Public Access Act; this will bring about ‘pervasive open access,’ especially to articles reporting on research paid for by taxpayers.  For your own sake and for the sake of researchers, students, teachers, doctors, and the like everywhere, please support it.  A ‘We the People’ petition is up and available for signing at whitehouse.gov. Please sign, spread the word, and end this racket.

The Quantity Problem with Peer Review in the Sciences

Jack Hitt’s recent article in the New York Times touting the virtues of crowdsourcing peer review, of public comments on to-be-published or just-published scientific research, prompts me to offer a few thoughts on the problems in traditional peer review in a discipline—computer science—that I have had some exposure to in the past. In this post, I will concentrate on the forum for publication provided by academic meetings such as conferences or workshops.

First and foremost, far too much material is submitted for publication. There are thousands of  computer science conferences and workshops held annually. (This is not an exaggeration.) The reviewing for these events is carried out by the program committee, a loosely organized group of academics brought together to organize the event. Some members of the program committee constitute the original brains trust for the conference; yet others are invited to serve to increase the star rating of the conference—a conference’s quality is often gauged by the pedigree visible in the program committee—and to aid in the reviewing of conference submissions.

When submissions arrive, they are parceled out to the program committee for reviewing. In some cases, to ensure a more nuanced review, papers are assigned to more than one member of the committee; sometimes, however, a paper might receive only one review. This stage of the reviewing is often one-way-blind; the name of the author is known, but the referee remains anonymous to the author. In larger conferences, the reviewing is double-blind.

Academic schedules mean, inevitably, that the program committee member is over-committed: he has signed up for many academic events, and accepted as many invitations as he can, all in a rush to add lines to the CV, to increase his visibility in the community, to network. But now, conference submissions are in the Inbox, demanding careful, sincere, and honest review.

Unsurprisingly, the committee member is late with his reviews. The program committee chair sends out reminder emails; the harried committee member rushes off to review the paper,  gives it a perfunctory reading, and writes a brief summary and critique. This review is almost invariably a superficial assessment. Unsurprisingly a great deal of garbage gets past gatekeepers. Sometimes, the committee member with outsource or sub-contract the reviewing to a PhD student or a colleague.  PhD students can either very harsh or very mild reviewers; the former type bristles with aggression, eager to show off his newly acquired knowledge; the latter, diffidently taking his first steps into the professional academic world, hesitates to make critical judgments.

Sometimes a workshop or a conference will not receive enough submissions. Panic sets in among the program committee; the conference’s viability is threatened. Instructions go out to committee members: ‘Accept papers if they will spark discussion; accept them if they show some promise; accept them even if many call-for-papers guidelines are not met’. The conference is held; the less said about the quality of the papers presented, the better.

In computer science, publications in the proceedings of ‘premier’ conferences confer considerable prestige and are valuable additions to CVs; paper acceptances are a desired commodity. Interestingly enough, at the premier conferences, attendance lists are often made up of the usual suspects. This is partially ensured by the quality of the papers and also by the established authority of  the authors. Double-blind reviewing isn’t really ‘blind’; it is quite easy to determine the identity of authors by an inspection of the writing style, the  subject matter i.e., favorite hobby horses, sometimes even the formatting of mathematical symbols. (One research group always uses MS-Word to format their papers, as opposed to Latex; yet other uses idiosyncratic symbols for mathematical operators.) A not-so-confident reviewer, confronted with a paper written by an ‘authority’, holds fire. The paper makes it through. Yet another, knowing that this is written by an ‘authority’, lets it go through, because ‘it must be good’; others support ‘friendly’ research groups.

That last point brings us to the ‘paradigm problem.’  Fields of research often feature paradigms jostling for preeminence. Thus, reviewers are sometimes disinclined to favorably assess papers cast in the frameworks of competing paradigms but only too happy to enthusiastically accept those that show their own favored paradigm in a good light. Stories abound of academics who have experienced great difficulty in suggesting alternative frameworks to established paradigms that have cornered the market on conference committees and submissions.

Little can be done about the volume of research submitted for review. The modern academy has placed its members on the writing and publishing treadmill; like obedient children, confronted with the promotion and tenure process, academics comply.

But a great deal can be done about the reviewing process. More on that in a future post.

Note: This post is merely a cleaned up version of a post written on an older, now defunct blog (Decoding Liberation, named after the book.) I”m reposting it here because I wanted to reiterate my older worries, and to set up a preliminary to some soon-to-follow thoughts on crowd-sourcing peer review.