Peer Review

I read an interesting article in the Times Higher Education [1] which talked about peer pressure from the peer review point of view. Most graduate students and tenure-track faculty members have to publish frequently to stay ahead of their contemporaries. The fact that they publish so many papers also implies that a lot of such papers get reviewed by their colleagues. The problem occurs when the reviewers are not experienced enough to provide a genuinely good review. In such a case, ground-breaking work may also get rejected because of the reviewer’s inability to comprehend the research that has been done.

Even from my personal experience, I wrote a journal paper based on my Master’s Thesis on Control of inter-area oscillations in power systems. It got rejected from a reputed journal because one of the reviewers said that we did not properly address “damping of wind energy conversion systems”. The fact that our paper had nothing to do with “damping of wind energy conversion systems” had completely escaped the reviewer. When we submitted the same paper to another reputed journal in my field, it got accepted in the first review itself.

Instances like these make me feel (and I am sure based on [1] that I am not the only author who feels this), if the peer-review process is really as reliable as we make it out to be? I agree that reviewing a paper written by someone else is a tedious task. One has to initially understand the underlying theories and assumptions, and then try to estimate the value of the work. But as academicians, isn’t this what we are expected to do? Isn’t that our moral responsibility?



Publish or Perish!!!

The academic world has been plagued with this dilemma for quite some time now. Wikipedia describes it as the “pressure in academia to rapidly and continuously publish academic work to sustain or further one’s career” [1]. Nowadays, it has become necessary to publish more and more papers as frequently as possible in order to demonstrate one’s academic talent. But is that the sole goal of doing research? Shouldn’t focus be given more to quality than to quantity? These are some of the fundamental questions that the present world of academia needs to find answers to.

This mad race to publish more and more had its origins in the late 1990s. Before that, scholars would publish only when the final objective of the research had been attained. In the 1980s, graduate students would publish papers only after their dissertation was over and/or when a considerable breakthrough had been made. Focus, at that time, was more on the content of the publication rather than the time it had taken to publish it. But as industry and money became more involved with research, scholars started publishing their results while the work was in progress. This resulted in the first paper becoming the precursor to the second, the second paper for the third, and so on and so forth; i.e. instead of one good paper encompassing the complete work, a plethora of papers emerged describing sections of the work done. Instead of doing “radical” improvement focus was shifted to doing “iota” improvement.

The justification that university administrators gave for stressing more on publications was based on the notion that it would act as an impetus for scholars to do cutting-edge research early on in their career. However, the flip-side of this argument was that scholars in their efforts to publish more and more gave less and less time to develop good research ideas. Moreover, in their efforts to publish, scholars were often forced to forsake part/whole of their teaching responsibilities resulting in a break in the knowledge transfer process which is so important in higher education. The fact that getting “tenure” depended greatly upon the number of publications one had, did not help either.

So the question to be answered is – what can be done to avoid falling in this trap? How can we do quality research and still publish (at a decent pace) to maintain our academic prowess? Well, one innovative approach that IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) [2] uses to address this issue is to split publications into two groups – conferences and journals. Conferences are more in number and easier to publish in; Journals are much less in number and are much more difficult to publish in. However, getting a journal publication is considered much more creditable than having a conference paper. Thus, those scholars who want to publish more can do so in the form of conference papers whereas those who want to do high-quality research have the option of getting their work accepted in a journal. Another option that is becoming very popular is “Open Access”. Wikipedia describes it as the “practice of providing unrestricted access via the Internet to peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles” [3]. Through Open Access, scholars can attain a higher citation index for their paper as well as disseminate their work more easily to the general public. It is believed that by making more people familiar with one’s work, researchers (especially tenure-track faculty) can increase their funding opportunities considerably.

To conclude, these options are creating a win-win situation where both the individual, in particular, as well as the academic world, at large, is benefited. I feel that separating publications into conferences and journals as well as Open Access are great ideas and that more and more disciplines/institutes should follow these tactics to ease the load on their respective scholars/members.





How comfortable are you with your own voice??!

The genesis for this blog post comes from an interesting experience that I had last week.

One of my professors had asked me and a colleague of mine to prepare videos on the usage of two power system software simulators that we used very often in our field and with which both of us were very familiar with. He wanted us to add as much details as we could in the videos as he intended to show them to the students of the course that he was teaching and who were not yet familiar with the two simulators. After we prepared our videos and sent them in to the professor, my colleague and I started talking about how each of us went about in making the videos. It was then that he told me that he had completely removed his voice from the video that he had made and had replaced his talk with written sentences which would pop-up on the screen when he wanted to “say” something. This was something which struck me as odd, so when I asked him the reason for it, he said “I am not comfortable hearing to my own voice.”

I did not give much thought to it that moment, but now as I contemplate on the things that we have gone through in preparing ourselves for a future professor position, I feel becoming comfortable with one’s own voice is something that is really important. Now, I know for a fact that it is weird to listen to oneself talk, but I feel that in the teaching profession, it is imperative that we do not shirk away from it. In today’s digital world where we talk about online classes and giving lectures over the internet, it becomes necessary to not only speak, but speak confidently about the work we have done/the course that we are teaching to audiences who might not be able to see us or communicate with us in any other way. For them, our voice and our video/slides will be everything. Our voice and video/slides will interest them, guide them, challenge them, and inspire them. In such a scenario, if we deprive them of our “speech”, then we are reducing by at-least 50% (maybe more) the knowledge that we could have transferred.

To conclude, I feel that although we are not accustomed to hearing ourselves speak, we should take every opportunity that we get to “talk” out loud. In the current academic environment of higher education, it is our responsibility to make things easier to learn for our students, and “talking” to them in a “comfortable” manner is one of the simplest ways of doing it.

Power of Expression

Whether it is in my home country (India) or in the US, one thought that has often occurred to me when it comes to teaching has been the “power of expression” of the teacher. It plays such an important role when one has to transfer knowledge from himself/herself to a wider audience.

I have often seen that it is not the most knowledgeable teacher that becomes most popular amongst the students but the teacher who can best “explain” oneself. Moreover, I have also felt that teachers/researchers who know the most or have done a lot of work in their respective field are not very comfortable talking about their own work in front of the “uninitiated”. It is in these respects that I feel that the “power of expression” becomes so important.

In lieu with this thought, when I attended the class on “Communicating Science”, I re-realized how learning to better communicate with others will not only help the “others” but will also help oneself. The fact that in order to bring money in the form of projects/grants requires being able to explain one’s work to the “lay” man/woman and make him/her interested enough to invest in it clearly summarizes the importance of the “power of expression”.  To conclude, in the current academic environment of higher education, I feel that being able to express one’s work is as much important or (more often) more important, than being able to do the work in the first place.