Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Stuff I learned today

  1. I spent part of the morning re-attaching our mailbox to the post that it's supposed to be attached to. I was successful, but it took longer than it should have and isn't a very elegant solution. It's a bit of a kludge, really. Reminds me that math and theoretical physics are probably good fields for me.

  2. I was in a meeting today in which a colleague used the words "lichen" and "world-class" in the same sentence. As in "so and so is a world-class expert on British lichens." Interesting. This was actually one of the most enjoyable parts of the meeting.

  3. At this same meeting, I learned from our Director of Admission that in 2008 the number of U.S. high school students entering college will, for the first time in many years, decrease. This decrease is projected to continue for around ten years. This is sobering news for all those colleges that are planning on growing enrollment over the next decade. Interesting. But not as fun or happy as the talk about world-class lichens.

  4. The meeting I was at concerned a very large Department of Education grant that we're applying for. (If we get it, it's 1.75 million dollars over five years.) As part of this grant, we will upgrade our registration system to allow for electronic, on-line registration. Currently students fill out actual paper forms listing their choices. They hand them in to the registrar, who then spends a few days entering in all of the students' courses by hand. Really. I suppose it's sorta quaint and retro. The registration forms I filled out at college in late 1980's were more modern looking. I think if we're going to go retro like this we should do it all the way. Maybe we should put pictures of 80's pop music stars on the forms and ask our registrars to dress in 80's clothes on the days that the forms are due.

    Why do we still do it this way? The short answer is that upgrading software to allow for electronic registration is expensive. How expensive? $114,000. The more I think about this, the harder it is to understand. This amount of money is more than two years of my salary. Given two years, I bet I could write a pretty good electronic registration system. I'm not that good a coder, and I don't really know anything about databases. But in two years I bet I could learn a lot. How can a single piece of software cost this much money? And from what I understand, it's not like this program is that great; it's clumsy to work with and doesn't have an appealing interface. Oh. And the $114,000 is just the initial fee. For each subsequent year we need to pay $14,000.

    I'd much prefer to hire a programmer or two to write a program that does exactly what we want. Are there any open source registration systems in the works? Or some open source something that we could use as a starting point?

  5. Lastly, I realized today that I own very little relaxing music. This is ok, except on those occasions when I'm trying to relax. Like now, when it's after midnight and I'm absolutely wide awake. I think I'll have a glass of wine and do some grading. This should help make me sleepy.

Monday, November 28, 2005

My Cyborg Name

You can get your own cyborg name at cyborg.namedecoder.com. Enter your name, chose an avatar, and you get a cyborg identity. Mine turned out to be:


Sunday, November 27, 2005

Peer Review and Free Socks

Larry Wasserman at The Academic Curmudgeon has an interesting entry on the peer review process upon which Cosma Shalizi at Three-Toed Sloth has an interesting follow-up. So I'll join the crowd and offer up a few additional thoughts about peer review.

What I find myself wondering about the peer review process is: why does anyone agree to serve as a referee? Referees for journal articles almost always are unpaid. Doing a good job as a referee is rarely rewarded, often goes entirely unnoticed, and sometimes elicits unpleasant responses from authors. Given this, I've got a couple of theories as to why people agree to serve as referees.

  1. It's an honor. Initially, I suspect that for many it's an honor to be asked to review an article -- it seems like an indication that one has "arrived" as a researcher. Being invited to serve as a referee is a sure sign that you're a member of the brother- and sister-hood of physicists (or whatever one's field is.) However, this sense of honor and pride wears off pretty quickly. Refereeing gets old in a hurry, and emails from editors soon elicit mild dread instead of pride.

  2. It's fun. Well, sometimes it's fun. I enjoy refereeing a well written, interesting paper about which I feel I can make some constructive suggestions. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen that frequently.

  3. Duty and obligation. I think many scientists continue to referee out of a sense of professional responsibility: it's just part of the job. We all benefit, the thinking goes, from peer review, since we get the prestige (and jobs and degrees and promotions) that come with having our work published in peer-reviewed journals. So, in a sense, by agreeing to referee we're returning the favor done for us by those who have refereed our papers.

  4. It gives one power. Unarguably, referees wield some power over what gets published and what doesn't get published. These decisions have consequences, both for the overall direction of the field and also for the author(s).

Reason #4 is somewhat problematic for a number of reasons. Cosma and Larry discuss these at some length. I want to focus some on reason #3.

If the peer-review system is to work, we need people to do serve as referees. (We might not want the peer review system to work. Arguably it's inefficient and prone to abuse. But that's another story for another time.) However, right now there's little incentive to referee, and perhaps even less of an incentive to do a good job. This is the case with much academic labor: the reward for doing a good job is a "thank you", followed by more work.

What are some possible solutions? I suppose one option is to pay referees. This would likely help entice people to serve as referees. Presumably, referees who did a bad job would not be invited back. So this could certainly provide a better incentive system: one that rewards good referees. However, the academic publishing industry relies on the unpaid work of vast numbers of unpaid reviewers. If journals were to start paying referees, the system would collapse pretty quickly.

Sometimes journals do provide some small reward for reviewing an article. For example, The European Journal of Physics B once gave me a free, 6-month online subscription to their journal as a thank you for refereeing and article for them. With all due respect for EJPB, this wasn't that exciting. Also, my guess is that most who are potential reviewers for EJPB can already get EJPB through their library.

But what about allowing the editors to chose one or two referees per issue to get some sort of small award? Maybe a coffee mug, or a t-shirt, or even a nice mechanical pencil. Maybe a baseball hat or a pair of socks with the journal name on them. A pair of socks that said "International Journal of Bifurcations and Chaos" or "Advances in Complexity" would be pretty cool. These objects have some utility, and might become prestigious objects in the scientific community. If a journal started giving away cool socks for conscientious reviewers of their articles, I'd be much happier about refereeing for them.

Saturday, November 26, 2005


It's the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I've got tons of grading to do, a major grant to work on, a talk to prepare for next week, and several writing projects. I've already procrastinated by doing lots of dishes, laundry, cooking, and baking bread. So I've run through the usual set of things I do to recover from the term and delay grading and other work. Thus, I figured this would be a good time to start a blog. It's certainly more interesting than all the grading I need to do.

Three more Calculus III problem sets to grade. Then I need to write narrative evaluations for both my classes. At the school I teach at, College of the Atlantic, faculty compose written evaluations for all students in their class. (Students can opt for a letter grade, as well, and most do.) The written evaluations are great; needless to say, a paragraph of prose can much more accurately reflect the work a student did over the term. However, it's a lot of work to write them.