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"This could be a very strong paper"

Attenzione! Stark Zynismus ahead!

I'm at the department, drinking coffee in the common room while browsing the web.

All of a sudden my auditory sensors detect the phrase: "this could be a very strong paper"... The word combination drags my attention and curiosity — so I continue to listen:

— we should stack those thin-film elements, then complicate the study a bit more by measuring the temperature

— indeed, this could be a very strong paper

— we'll easily have it accepted at the international banana conference this fall

— let's enhance it a bit by adding a processor to measure and compute the data on-chip, real time, that'd be just cool to have

— yes yes, this could be a very strong paper

— finally we'll finish writing that other proposal, I've been so frustrated with this recently

That was just a regular ordinary postdoctoral researcher conversation on a Tuesday afternoon. Now my question to you reader is: What's wrong with this dialogue? I think the word stream in the yellow box above is so wrong, at so many different levels, that I just don't know where to begin.

I want to remain positive and don't really want to become one of those regular angry nerds bashing everything and blaming everyone. But, I just can't resist putting down a few thoughts about that crazy academic world.

Academics nowadays have become paper monsters, all they see is papers, they daydream of papers, their final work goals are solely focused on papers. Hence, we hear thought pathways such as: "this could be a very strong paper". Just imagine if the phrase was formulated as: "this could be very useful", or "if we're successful this could push the world be a better place". That'd be so cool to hear!

With all of that said, it's evident that a large chunk of academic research nowadays is corrupted. But why? I constantly seek meaningful explanations, but somehow I always get stuck. To be fair, looking at the past years and extrapolating back in time, it seems like, despite all of the junk work required to-be-alive by modern public schools, universities have brought about some genuinely remarkable discoveries. Though, I still think that these days research is better conducted in institutions other than universities, for which I scribbled some thoughts awhile ago, but for now let's get back to the topic and our yellow-boxed dialogue.

I'm looking at some data presented by Kendall Powell in his Nature article "The future of the postdoc". Ah well, Kendall's article does not point to a single reference supporting his plots, but let's just assume that the trend he states is about right. Have a look at the plot below. It shows some crude statistics about the number of postdocs as a function of time.

Active postdoc pile-up with years

So what do we have here? A generous four-times growth of active postdoctoral researcher positions in just 30 years. Now, take into account that usually there are a few, say, on average, 5 PhD students per postdoc, and you'll quickly see that the growth of PhDs throughout the years has followed a geometric progression. I think it's no surprise we see such a high number of poorly executed work. And I think that's not because the number of doctoral students has increased, but likely due to inefficient spendings. The whole system of grant applications and distribution has some flaws which nowadays drive scholars into writing science fiction in their applications to unprecedented levels.

I think here lies the answer to why the casual cafeteria dialogue. There is simply too much funding and too many researchers trying to get hold of it. Think of it as having a full pack of candy. The more you have, the more everybody wants to have of it, the more you're willing to give. The lesser the candy, the more cautious you are with giving it away.

But yeh, who am I to throw such wisdom, as I'm a part of the same crowd, and yet another guy from the pile of the to-be doctors.

Date:Thu Mar 18 10:30:08 GMT 2018


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