On Academic Compliance Bullsh*t

Harry Frankfurt wrote a book “On Bullshit“, which Wikipedia summarizes as saying “bullshit is speech intended to persuade without regard for truth.” I think the problem is deeper than that. There is work generated for the sake of saying that work was done.

Peer Review

Consider peer review. I recently received a review from a paper I co-authored in a good journal. The reviews were positive except Reviewer #2 said the word X was not the right word. X is of course exactly the right word, but in order to get accepted we had to change the paper to make Reviewer #2 happy. [I refuse to accept the charitable view that these were Reviewer #2’s genuine beliefs, it is truly nonsense.]

We complied. We wasted our time to increase the utility of anonymous Reviewer #2 in order to satisfy the editor. Reviewer #2’s ego is boosted, by having enforced compliance, and therefore increasing his relative status at the expense of ours, but since he is anonymous, only he knows. Reviewer #2 could have just said “Accept”, but that would be too easy, he felt he had to say something to prove he reviewed the paper. (R2 could be female, but he feels male.)

Now Reviewer #2 is not operating in a vacuum. Undoubtedly some unreasonable reviewer of one of his papers made him go through what he felt were ridiculous contortions, and this rolls downhill. To salvage ego, the abused child becomes an abuser, creating a new generation of abused spouses and children.

What we have here is a cycle of peer review violence, where as more and more research is produced due to increased productivity of academics (in part due to the rise of information technologies, but mostly the publish or perish culture driven by university ranking systems driven by the desire to attract international students driven by revenue), more review requests are generated, more reviewers get more annoyed at the requests, and more hoops laid out before us.

This Reviewer #2 was actually not so bad. Many others are unhappy if you don’t regurgitate all scientific knowledge up until the present day, and lay out all prospective policy outcomes going forward. This attitude has led to an explosion of paper lengths.

Reviewers would be much more polite were reviews not anonymous. This raises other problems, that junior people would be afraid to confront senior people on cases which were not bullshit. Unless everything is open, an open (non-blind) review policy from a single journal cannot  extract fair reviews. Retaliation, on say grant reviews, or promotion reviews, which remain anonymous, is a risk.

screen-shot-2018-07-26-at-10-45-41-am
Source: Are economics papers too long?

Without any peer review, Gresham’s Law of Journal Articles: Bad knowledge drives out good, would surely apply. Peer review of some form is a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for scientific articles. But that said, what is really required here? If you, a journal, trust me enough to review (or edit) other people’s work, why do you not trust me enough to publish my own? There are a few arguments in favor of review:

  • First, we have Linus’s Law: “with many eyes all bugs are shallow”, and so some editorial review will improve quality and find problems. Good authors want good editors.
  • Second, the anticipation of peer review improves quality as you know a paper will have to get through review to be published

However in contrast, if we have a peer review system where nothing passes the first round (regardless of how good), but many papers go into the revise and resubmit limbo, authors will, in fact, submit lower quality work, and wait for the reviewers to make their recommendations, and spend their scarce time trying to satisfy those reviewers instead of themselves.  In short, we have constructed a system where peer review lowers the initial quality of submission. We have become so afraid of publishing false positives (a wrong paper), we create many false negatives (decline competent papers). History can judge false positives retrospectively just fine, we don’t actually need to spend so many resources to do this prospectively.

I have talked previously about how peer review also costs society knowledge, as the inevitable delay in the Revise and Resubmit round, and the cost of going back to closed projects.  Instead of rewarding academics by which journals they published in, reward them for how important their work is. This is either known, because history rewards them with citations, or arguable that the future will recognize them because colleagues believe in them now.

Instead of over-reliance on peer-review, we should view it as a filter to ensure wrong or poorly written papers are not published, not a filter to ensure only perfect papers are published. We should have a system that rewards the creation of small (or large) academic building blocks, and lets scientists and engineers and even economists file their work respectably as they develop it in the length appropriate, and not feel the need to expand their work to develop a whole new theory of civilization with every research output.

History can be the evaluator – it is attention which is now scarce, not the number of pages in a journal. Compliance with systems built for another age needs to be tossed with those systems.

Promotion

Seeking letters for promotion cases aims to ensure that an outsider (someone not at your university) says you do good work, because for some reason, the university cannot trust people at its own university to make such a judgment. My promotion cases required 10 or 11 letters from other academics at other universities saying that my work was good enough to warrant promotion, and I have written numerous anonymous letters. I have not retaliated (nor had the opportunity to ‘retaliate’ against a youngster I was offended by, or their senior allies) by trying to undermine a promotion case, but I certainly can see how some senior people might if they were offended by a junior faculty somewhere, or by those junior’s senior colleagues, like a peer review.

I understand that such letters help assure that promotion is warranted, but imagine Apple computer asking Microsoft, Google, and Facebook to write letters in support of promotion of their own software engineers. That’s absurd.  The evidence of my research is in my publications, and other people’s citations of those publications, not in whether someone else says my work is good. My colleagues should be able to judge that. The evidence of my teaching is in whether my students learned (and retained) anything, not in end-of-semester surveys.

But if I as a junior faculty know that I have to get 10 senior people to write letters for me, I will spend effort to curry favour by doing things like reviewing papers when assigned by editors, and serve on committees, and so on. In short, I will comply in advance so that the favour will be returned. Letter writing enforces compliance on the part of junior faculty structurally.

Let universities take on the burden themselves of deciding whom they should promote, rather than offloading this to the community. If they don’t feel comfortable assessing their own staff, maybe that’s a field they shouldn’t be in.

Conferences

Sometimes compliance-enforcement takes an even more ridiculous turn. I recently had a conference paper at an Australasian conference accepted on its substance but declined because of some mysterious MS Word formatting problem that I refused to spend even more time to rectify after 2 previous revision attempts. Despite using the organisers templates, they still decided the paper somehow didn’t meet the correct format, and so was rejected. Obviously it’s their loss, they’ll miss me, and our research,  (and my student who would have also presented something else), and the revenue we would have paid to attend the conference. If the papers were to be published in a book, I might understand why this matters, but that in fact was not the case, it was simply for electronic distribution, and the aesthetic judgment of the organiser, which is lacking (obviously, as it was a pretty ugly MS Word template to begin with).

Dissertations

Now I understand Tyler Cowan’s quote (can’t find the original, but essentially)

 “The most important thing I learned in my PhD was to get the margins on the pages right.”

Back in the day, an older woman in the registrar’s office would go through your thesis or dissertation with a ruler and measure to make sure the margins on each page were just so. And if not, the dissertation would be turned back, and you got to reformat it. This was the University’s final lesson in compliance.

But really, why does marginal perfectionism matter? We did it because the system required it. Fortunately, this particular requirement has disappeared, but why did the system require it? One imagines so that reproductions of the dissertation on a smaller sheet of paper would not lose important information. There may have once been a good reason, but margin size enforcement was promulgated as a rule that lasted long past the original need.

Establishing Degrees

At a major university with which I have an affiliation, I am working on establishing a new degree program. This is a relatively cost-free enterprise the university, the units of study are almost entirely already offered. However to get the program established, we have to have an Expression of Interest, vetted by three faculties involved, including 2 committees in my faculty, as well as two committees at the university level. Then we have a proposal, whose form is 57 pages. And then we need to go through all the same committees. I am told the 57 page form is designed to dissuade people who aren’t serious. But for those who are, that and all the meeting for something so technically simple to implement is pointless.

One of the faculty committees has about 50 members, all of whose job, apparently is to ratify what the other committees said and supervise one or two full-time staff members.

Let a thousand degrees flourish, and if they don’t succeed, they can be cancelled.

Accreditation

Just as universities accredit students (who undoubtedly think exams and homeworks and projects are a nuisance), degree programs often go through accreditation themselves to show that the curriculum they require students engage in comports with what the industry associations who control ABET think is important (or was important, as this is an exceptionally conservative process designed to stifle innovation.) The last time I went through this (fortunately I did not have to lead it in my Department), each required course produced a notebook with sample poor, average, and good work from students for each assignment, as well as printouts of the assignments and other miscellany. It is pretty clear the review panel did not actually review the contents of each notebook. They may have sampled them.  The  wall of notebooks was there to demonstrate compliance. Each assignment was cross-referenced against objectives and qualities students were supposed to accomplish by successfully completing that assignment. While this sounds good in principle, it is basically a database exercise, labelling things as satisfying objectives rather than changing things to meet objectives.

Let universities produce students whose value is they graduated from a university that taught what it thought important, and if that aligns with market demand, all the better. It is not as if students don’t also have to take and pass exams to be a Professional this or that, and an education that helped would be appropriately recognized, or universities don’t have well-established and largely self-fulfilling reputations.

Discussion

Academics do nothing if not evaluate each other’s work. The amount of time writing letters of recommendation, evaluations of promotion cases, reviews of proposals and each other’s programs, and conducting peer reviews  of articles is surprisingly, and in my view unnecessarily, high. It is academia generating work for academics who ought to be in the primary business of creating and transmitting knowledge, not evaluating knowledge creation and transmission. It is, in economic terms, a deadweight loss. If all this evaluation improved the quality of knowledge production or transmission sufficiently, it might not be, but there is no evidence I see such is the case. We adopt the forms because those before us adopted the forms.

On the merits of copying

In academia, plagiarism is a “crime”, as it should be. The rewards in academia (tenure, promotion, the opportunity to peer review, and the privilege of deciding who else gets to be a full professor and the opportunity to decide who else gets to decide who gets to be a full professor …) go to the creator of cited ideas, and if anyone can poach it without credit, the incentives for creation diminish. Most ideas are not patentable, and copyright is weak sauce.  Citation is essential for the creator to be incentivized. Further the creator of the idea seldom gets any direct personal benefit, the ideas are too abstract.

Hotel Hotel - Not where we stayed. A Green Building, but no shade.
Hotel Hotel – Not where we stayed in Canberra. A building not necessarily to be copied. Nothing about it says Canberra, everything says 2000s.

In contrast with academia, in life, copying can be good. The original is rarely credited.  Emulation is how we learn far faster than trial and error. We can learn from the successes and mistakes of others. The whole idea of the cookbook is to encourage replication, it distills many attempts at achieving a high-quality dish into a recipe that should be emulated before it is varied. My eating high quality food doesn’t diminish the quality of your food, but may lower your social status, as more people can consume what previously was yours exclusively.

Cities copy each other. One city gets a feature, others want it. This is true for convention centers, sports teams, stadia, streetcars, skyscrapers, and so on. Yet, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit in the transport sector.

The United States has ‘not invented here’ syndrome in spades. It would do better to copy more. There are many things done better elsewhere in the world, the following is a short list of things I have paid attention to. Undoubtedly there are more.

  • Urban Public Transport … Everywhere in the world does public transit better than almost anywhere in the US. We can blame the rise of the automobile for part of this, and culture, and racism, and any number of other things, but in the end, there are better ways of operating. Even when a US city does it reasonably well (e.g. Minnesota’s  A Line), that same metro area cannot replicate more than 1 line every three years.
  • Intercity Passenger Trains … as above, almost everywhere in the world is better than the US. This is in part due to the widespread adoption of the automobile, and in part due to the success of intercity freight rail, (and passenger aviation) which the US does well, but the US has forgotten how to operate passenger rail safely or efficiently.
  • Traffic Safety … Lots of places are safer to travel than the US
  • Road Pricing … Most places don’t do this well, but Singapore is a good example to emulate.
  • Bicycling and Transport and Land Use Planning … The Netherlands leads here.

Certainly there are other things outside of transport the US could improve

  • Gun Laws and Policing … Look to Australia or the UK, which are far from perfect, but have far fewer gun homicides per capita
  • Imprisonment
  • Parliament and Governance and Elections

The point is that while we all wish our cities were unique and distinct, they have in fact grown up adopting similar forms (street grids), technologies (cars, elevators, air conditioning), supply chains (chain stores and franchised restaurants embody this), embedded in the same culture, and so cannot be that different after all. This allows us to understand cities as a class. And while what history remains, and interesting artistic and architectural artefacts should be considered for preservation, most of the city could have been emerged elsewhere and no one would be the wiser. So copying itself is an historical feature of the process of city and transport development, which should be preserved and promoted in the future, it would be ahistorical to avoid emulation.

On Frederick Law Olmsted

I recently read A Clearing In The Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century by Witold Rybczynski. Some quotes from the book below, and then some comments.

The report observed that “the present street system, not only of Brooklyn but of Portrait_of_Frederick_Law_Olmsted.jpgother large towns, has serious defects for which, sooner or later, if these towns should continue to advance in wealth, remedies must be devised, the cost of which will be extravagantly increased by a long delay in the determination of the outlines.” The chief drawback, according to Olmsted, was the undifferentiated grid plan with its network of intersecting, uniform streets. He had already spelled out his opposition to this characteristic nineteenth-century device in his report on San Francisco. “On a level plain, like the city of Philadelphia, a series of streets at right-angles to each other is perfectly feasible, and the design is as simple in execution as it appears on paper,” he had written, “but even where the circumstances of site are favorable [emphasis added] for this formal and repetitive arrangement, it presents a dull and inartistic appearance, and in such a hilly position as that of San Francisco, it is very inappropriate.”

Olmsted and Vaux proposed modifying the grid. Their solution … called it a “Parkway.” The parkway was a 260-foot-wide avenue divided into five traffic lanes, each separated by a row of trees. The two outside lanes were reserved for commercial vehicles ….  The parkway was an essential link. For him the “metropolitan condition” included cities and suburbs.

Unlike modernist city planners of the 1920s, Olmsted was neither a radical nor a utopian; he believed that it was possible “to realize familiar and traditional ideals under novel circumstances.” This attitude appealed to civic leaders, businessmen, and politicians alike and explains why his planning proposals were easily accepted.

[Describing the collection of architects at the White City of the Chicago World’s Fair] “Look here, old fellow, do you realize that this is the greatest meeting of artists since the fifteenth century!”

According to him, landscape architecture involved composition and perspective in which details were subordinate to the whole, contrary to decorative gardening, which treated “roses as roses, not as flecks of white or red modifying masses of green.”

Olmsted is a fascinating individual who went through many careers, a farmer, a travel- writer who visited the south before the Civil War, and of course later in life a landscape architect

He was not a transportation planner as such, though his development of parkways and multi-way boulevards did contribute in an important ways to transportation designs and should be used more. One could argue he anticipated the idea of complete streets, serving multiple modes of transportation in the same corridor, to improve not only aesthetic design, but efficiency and equity.

We recently did a study showing how the quality of environment, including the presence of trees, at transit stops affected riders perception of time. Nicer environments reduced people’s overestimate of wait time. A similar observation holds with driving experience, people prefer to drive on boulevards than channelized freeways. This isn’t surprising, but it doesn’t fit much into standard engineering design of either roads or transit stops and stations. Since we are designing for people, it should.

Olmsted also developed garden suburbs, and opposed the rectilinear street grid. I think it depends on how you use it, and what you do in residential neighborhoods should differ from what you do in commercial areas.  And what you can and should do depends in part on the transportation technology you are trying to facilitate. How you design for trains differs from pedestrians, and those, which need to be more direct, differ from automated vehicles, which we are only now beginning to think about.

An argument in favour of streetcars

I am a noted streetcar skeptic. I have written blog posts about their issues. As an objective analyst, I will however admit an advantage streetcars or trams have over buses.

This is not the ‘permanence’ justification that is often heard and easily disproved (i.e. where are they now if they were so permanent?). But it is related, once laid down, tracks are harder to move than buses, and tracks are more expensive, so it is harder to make routes circuitous. Many bus routes look like they were designed by drunk transit planners. One local bus the 370, which runs near my office and my home is so circuitous it is faster to walk even ignoring schedule delay. (It is not quite faster to walk end-to-end though, walking time is 2:30 vs. 1:14 on the bus, so the effective bus speed, assuming schedule compliance, is about 9.6 km/h vs. 4.8 km/h walking.) I have written about this before in Minneapolis, (and nearby Rosedale) and circuity is hardly an unknown problem.

370 Bus Route on Google Maps
370 Bus Route on Google Maps

Now there are undoubtedly reasons for every indirect deviation that diverts buses from the straight and narrow. However, every circuitous zig also loses passengers, and bus routes in the US are much more circuitous than travel by road. Serve this building, serve that one, cover this street, reduce pedestrian walking time.

In contrast, trams in practice are much more straight-laced, paragons of transit routing virtue. The historic Sydney Tram Map, as this map in wikipedia shows, gives a sense of routes that were pretty much as direct as possible.

Eastern_trams-1.png

Now it can be argued this particular bus provides and east-west service that no tram did, which is true in part. But that doesn’t mean trams could not. It also could be argued that almost no one rides the 370 end-to-end. Though I have not checked the Opal data, this is probably true as well. But a well-structured suburb-to-suburb transit network (my fantasy map is here, Jarrett Walker has done this as well) could avoid this. To be fair as well, the Sydney frequent network is not nearly as circuitous as the 370 bus, which has a roughly 20 minute headway

Multiple academic opportunities at multiple levels – School of Civil Engineering, University of Sydney

Multiple academic opportunities at multiple levels – School of Civil Engineering, University of Sydney

School of Civil Engineering
Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies
University of Sydney
Reference No. 2002/1018C

About the opportunity
The School of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney is searching for faculty members at all ranks and in all areas of Civil Engineering, with a preference for candidates in Construction Engineering Management, Humanitarian Engineering and Transport Engineering. The School is especially interested in candidates who increase the diversity of the academic staff in the School.

Successful candidates will be expected to develop an independent research program, making internationally recognized advances on problems of importance, engage in collaborations within and outside the University, participate in both undergraduate and graduate teaching and curriculum development, and contribute to the working of the School and the University.

If successful you should expect an internationally competitive salary, a generous start-up package and a first-class research environment.

https://sydney.nga.net.au/cp/index.cfm?event=jobs.checkJobDetailsNewApplication&returnToEvent=jobs.listJobs&jobid=1B592665-6301-4DB5-B08B-A97400F2894A&CurATC=EXT&CurBID=949319BC-8898-4F11-AC4B-9DB401358504&JobListID=7447e3ad-96dd-4a31-0a88-88e7514fc7de&jobsListKey=386e8da5-81d9-4d53-a62a-9d3bde5205b6&persistVariables=CurATC,CurBID,JobListID,jobsListKey,JobID&lid=75320070128

Postdoctoral Research Associate in Transport

  • Join an organisation that encourages progressive thinking
  • Be valued for your exceptional knowledge and experience in Transport Data Analytics and Reliability
  • Full-time fixed-term for 1 year with possibility to extend a further year, remuneration package: $92k per annum base salary, plus leave loading and up to 17% superannuation)

 

School of Civil Engineering

Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology

Reference no. 1985/1018F


About the opportunity 

Applications are invited for the appointment of one Postdoctoral Research Associate (Level A) in the School of Civil Engineering, within the Faculty of Engineering and IT at the University of Sydney. The position will contribute to the research and leadership of the School of Civil Engineering in the newly launched Transport Engineering program.

Emergence of new technologies such as autonomous vehicles, increases in data availability and advances in data science are paving the way for exciting and unprecedented opportunities to shape the next generation of transportation systems. The successful applicant(s) will help build a new research group headed by Dr. Emily Moylan to develop data-driven, stochastic methods in transport system performance assessment to support the adoption of new technologies and understand the evolution of travel behaviour.

About you

The University values courage and creativity; openness and engagement; inclusion and diversity; and respect and integrity. As such, we see the importance in recruiting talent aligned to these values in the pursuit of research excellence. We are looking for a Postdoctoral Research Associate who:

  • Holds a PhD in civil engineering, spatial planning or related fields
  • Has published ground-breaking research in the area of transport data science or transport system performance assessment in high quality international journals
  • Possesses strong communication skills

 

About us

Since our inception 160 years ago, the University of Sydney has led to improve the world around us. We believe in education for all and that effective leadership makes lives better. These same values are reflected in our approach to diversity and inclusion, and underpin our long-term strategy for growth. We are Australia’s first university and have an outstanding global reputation for academic and research excellence. Across 9 campuses, we employ over 7600 academic and non-academic staff who support over 47,000 students.
We are undergoing significant transformative change which brings opportunity for innovation, progressive thinking, breaking with convention, challenging the status quo, and improving the world around us

 

For more information about the position, or if you require reasonable adjustment or support filling out this application, please contact Dan Kuhner, Recruitment Partner, on +61 2 8627 0934 or dan.kuhner@sydney.edu.au

 

Intending applicants are welcome to seek further information about the position from Dr Emily Moylan emily.moylan@sydney.edu.au

 

Closing date: 11:30pm 11 November 2018 

 

The University of Sydney is committed to diversity and social inclusion. Applications from people of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds; equity target groups including women, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTIQ; and people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, are encouraged.

 

The University reserves the right not to proceed with any appointment.

Candidate Information Pack

Full cost accessibility

Recently published:

Traditional accessibility evaluation fails to fully capture the travel costs, especially the external costs, of travel. This study develops a full cost accessibility (FCA) framework by combining the internal and external cost components of travel time, safety, emissions, and money. The example illustrated compares FCA by automobile and bicycle on a toy network to demonstrate the potential and practicality of applying the FCA framework on real networks. This method provides an efficient evaluation tool for transport planning projects.

Full Cost Access
Full Cost Access

Network Structure and the Journey to Work: An Intra-Metropolitan Analysis

Recently published:
Variation of estimated network measures by Minor Civil Division.
This research quantifies the variation of network structure within the Minneapolis – St. Paul metropolitan area and relates it to average travel time to work for each Minor Civil Division (MCD) in the metro area. The variation of these measures within the metropolitan area is analyzed spatially. The measures of network structure are then related to observed travel. Better connected networks have lower average travel times, all else equal. The results corroborate a relation between network structure and travel and point to the importance of understanding the underlying street network structure.

Measuring polycentricity via network flows, spatial interaction, and percolation

Recent working paper:

Polycentricity is most commonly measured by location-based metrics (e.g. employment density or total number of workers, above a threshold, used to count the number of centres). While these metrics are good indicators of location ‘centricity’, the results are sensitive to threshold-choice. We consider here the alternate idea that a centre’s status depends on which other locations it is con- nected to in terms of trip inflows and outflows: this is inherently a network rather than a location idea. A set of flow and network-based centricity metrics for measuring metropolitan area poly- centricity using Journey-To-Work (JTW) data are presented: (a) trip-based, (b) density-based, and, (c) accessibility-based. Using these measures, polycentricity is computed and rank-centricity distributions are plotted to test whether these distributions follow Zipf-like or Chirstaller-like distributions. Further, a percolation theory framework is proposed for the full origin-destination (OD) matrix, where trip flows are used as a thresholding parameter to count the number of sub-centres. It is found that trip flows prove to be an effective measure to count and hierarchically organise metropolitan area sub-centres, and provide one way of dealing with the arbitrariness of defining a threshold on numbers of employed persons, employment density, or centricities to count sub-centres. These measures demonstrated on data from the Greater Sydney region show that the trip flow-based threshold and network centricities help to characterize polycentricity more robustly than the traditional number or density-based thresholds alone and provide unexpected insights into the connections between land use, transport, and urban structure.SankeyFlowsSydney