Understanding Academia

From: Robin Hanson (rhanson@gmu.edu)
Date: Wed May 03 2000 - 12:21:06 MDT

Every so often someone posts here complaining about how academics have no
imagination, have no deep understanding, and ignore the most interesting
topics. After all, the evidence is obvious: the stuff we talk about is
clearly terribly important, and yet academics seem to ignore it, and even
go out of their way to denegrate it.

I think it helps a lot to understand why academics do what they do.
For the most part it is not because they are stupid or lack imagination.
It is mostly because they are using a winning strategy in the game
they are playing: publish or perish. Sure lots of people aren't willing
to sacrifice their principles to play this strategy. But a strong
selection effect insures that they are a minority in academia.

A good way to understand any game is to read good strategy advice about
it. So a good way to understand the academic game is to read the
good strategy advice found in: "How to Publish in Top Journals"
In particular see the "choosing topics" section of

Here are some especially relevant excerpts:
21. Do not waste time on dead or dying topics

If your most recent references in a projected paper are ten years old, it
will be difficult to publish it. It is a dead issue. Do not start such a
paper (until you get tenure)!

If the most recent references closely related to your paper are 5 years old,
it is a dying issue. Editors are reluctant to accept such papers, even if
the referees recommend publication.

It is difficult for the editor to find suitable referees for outdated topics.

Your inability to find sufficient references indicates You have not read the
Others are not interested in the topic, hence, it is unlikely to produce

No problem! Dig further, or join a discussion group.
If the work is completed already, cite some papers that are more recent.

22. Do not write papers with breakthrough ideas at first

Avoid writing about your breakthrough ideas, at least in the early stage of
your career, unless your mentor is the editor of a major journal.

Breakthrough topics are not often published.
Wait until you get tenure to tackle breakthrough ideas.
  "I told my own young colleagues that they should preferably start off with
the received wisdom with some changes until they get their tenure." -Douglas
North, 1993 Nobel Laureate in Economic Science (see Nyaw and Yu, 1995).

If you do advance breakthrough ideas your papers will be rejected, and they
might reappear in a modified, clearly written form from someone else later.

After you are established, perhaps you can tackle breakthrough ideas, and
become known, instead of publishing many papers with minor ideas.

Or as you gain more experience, you may find that the ideas turn out to be

23.Extend existing literature

The bulk of papers published today are modifications of the existing
literature or tests of existing theories.

Something in the paper must be original.

Duplication is not an extension of knowledge.

24. Write something creative

A journal's primary goal is to publish original ideas.

A good journal is interested in disseminating new ideas, not in publishing
papers that elaborate some existing ideas or examine the implications of a
minor change in assumptions.

These papers only show that some results do not necessarily hold. Such
efforts are basically a comment on someone else's paper.

25. Mix ingredients of other papers

How does one extend the literature? Suppose there are two important papers
in the literature.

      p1 = {A, B, C, and D}, p2 = {C, D, and E}

where A, B, ... are ingredients. Let pnew = {A, B, E} be a new paper.
Does the new combination make sense? Does it describe an important economic
phenomenon in a certain country or does it capture an interesting situation?
If pnew = {A, C, X} where X is totally new, and if it makes sense, it may be
an original idea.

Original papers add something new and dare to eliminate some old notions. Do
not worry about compatibility with old papers.

Robin Hanson rhanson@gmu.edu http://hanson.gmu.edu
Asst. Prof. Economics, George Mason University
MSN 1D3, Carow Hall, Fairfax VA 22030
703-993-2326 FAX: 703-993-2323

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