Luis von Ahn: on doing research vs. writing papers

February 9th, 2009 by dario

jumping-brainLuis von Ahn (the father of human computation and creator of smart ideas such as reCAPTCHA) has a provocative post in which he contrasts research with the practice of writing academic papers. Spending time writing papers, he argues, fosters redundancy, produces an imbalance between original research and communication effort, and crystallizes research output.
Even worse, it creates spam:

Given the number of people working in computer science and the fact that publishing papers is considered the goal of our work, there is an insane number of papers written every year, the vast majority of which contribute very little (or not at all) to our collective knowledge. This is basically spam. In fact, for many papers (including some of my own), the actual idea of the paper could be stated in one paragraph, but somehow people manage to write 10 pages of it.

The solution, he suggests, is a mix of soft peer review and liquid publication:

Can a combination of a wiki, karma, and a voting method like reddit or digg substitute the current system of academic publication?

One might ask: is this realistically ever going to happen? It seems to me that the missing link between traditional scholarly communication and what von Ahn refers to as “academic publication 2.0″ is a robust system for producing, tracking and consuming authority and reputation.

Industry has solved this problem for different forms of human interaction in a variety of ways. No one has been able to find an adequate solution for scientific communication yet. Is this the reason why we spend our time writing papers instead of single paragraphs with brilliant ideas?

[jumping brain, cc-image courtesy of ]

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9 Responses to “Luis von Ahn: on doing research vs. writing papers”

  1. shane Says:

    Good ideas can be summarised in a single paragraph, but good research can’t. You can’t evaluate the quality of research without a paper, though the degree to which is true will depend on the discipline involved.

  2. academic papers as spam. : infomusings Says:

    [...] Academic Productivity    February 10, 2009 | Filed Under [...]

  3. a guestNo Gravatar Says:

    Whether von Ahn’s idea is practical depends on the incentives academics have for publishing in the first place. As long as academics work in a system that fosters ‘publish or perish’ and a system that ranks the quality of journals, von Ahn will be considered an idealist. People desire tenure and higher status. Incentives motive people to behave in a certain way and, therefore, publishing research in journals will be with us for the foreseeable future.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Great Post Dario! Von Ahn clearly agrees with what we’ve been saying in this blog for a while, good to know.

  5. joseNo Gravatar Says:

    So many interesting tidbits, that post is pure gold. Example (in the comments):
    “We are doing “Deadline-Driven Development”, and, although it might have benefits, it just seems old-fashioned and lacking purpose…”

  6. Academic publications as spam — The Endeavour Says:

    [...] tip: Academic Productivity via ? [...]

  7. コンタクトレンズNo Gravatar Says:

    Your blog got the simplicity dude and I really like this. So first time I came to know about the creator of reCaptha and credit goes to you for enhancing my knowledge.

    But strange to see that he is using blogspot.

  8. Web Designing QuotesNo Gravatar Says:

    Good ideas can be summarized in a single paragraph, but good research can’t. You can’t evaluate the quality of research without a paper, though the degree to which is true will depend on the discipline involved.

  9. Publish or Not « Digital Management Theory Says:

    [...] in Uncategorized by compositionfrombelow on April 18, 2009 Over at The Valve, Bill Benzon, via Academic Productivity, pointed to CMU comp science heavyweight Luis von Ahn’s post against research papers. (von Ahn [...]

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