An XKCD comic—and the absurdity of academic research/publishing

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In summary: But, compared with the other systems, it seems to have some advantages. It has the advantage of being tried. 'In summary, the comic points out the absurdity of academic research and how it can be repetitive and trivial. The comic also shows how funding sources can impact the results of research.
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Has anyone read this or seen the XKCD comic?

Scientific Publishing Is a Joke
An XKCD comic—and its many remixes—perfectly captures the absurdity of academic research.
The cartoon is, like most XKCD comics, a simple back-and-white line drawing with a nerdy punch line. It depicts a taxonomy of the 12 “Types of Scientific Paper,” presented in a grid. “The immune system is at it again,” one paper’s title reads. “My colleague is wrong and I can finally prove it,” declares another. The gag reveals how research literature, when stripped of its jargon, is just as susceptible to repetition, triviality, pandering, and pettiness as other forms of communication. The cartoon’s childlike simplicity, though, seemed to offer cover for scientists to critique and celebrate their work at the same time.

I don't know it's that bad, at least in my fields. But I have seen some poor papers that are disappointing. And I've seen essentially the same paper in 2 or 3 different journals with little new information is successive versions.
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Nutrition is very suspect in this regard: reputable unbiased reporting

So bad that authors now have to validate/disclose any funding they got. PlosOne has articles on the subject of funding introducing bias:

There are several papers on this subject, and the studies indicate that funding sources have an impact on results and conclusions.

The point is that food manufacturers view funding research as more like advertising than research. Apparently this funding method has been an on going thing for a very long time. So you cannot fault the industry's point of view when no one complains. The complaints have started. So we will see.
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If you want an interesting bit of video about how it is worse than you think:
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Astronuc said:
Has anyone read this or seen the XKCD comic?
Just in case you are asking about XKCD in general then, yes. Randall is good at nailing geeky stuff with just the right amount of (also geeky) humor. A good number of topics in software engineering, which I can relate most with, has one or two XKCD's that sums it up pretty good (like 927 and 538 for instance). However, 2456 is outside my experience so in case you were just asking about that then feel free to ignore this post (but don't miss the opportunity to flip through some more XKCD's - there is a bit of something for every type of geek in there).
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Astronuc said:
I don't know it's that bad, at least in my fields. But I have seen some poor papers that are disappointing. And I've seen essentially the same paper in 2 or 3 different journals with little new information is successive versions.
It's seems to be the mathematicians. :oldbiggrin:
Publish the same result several times
After getting my degree, I worked for a few years in functional analysis. I bought a copy of Frederick Riesz' Collected Papers as soon as the big thick heavy oversize volume was published. However, as I began to leaf through, I could not help but notice that the pages were extra thick, almost like cardboard. Strangely, each of Riesz' publications had been reset in exceptionally large type. I was fond of Riesz' papers, which were invariably beautifully written and gave the reader a feeling of definitiveness.
As I looked through his Collected Papers however, another picture emerged. The editors had gone out of their way to publish every little scrap Riesz had ever published. It was clear that Riesz' publications were few. What is more surprising is that the papers had been published several times. Riesz would publish the first rough version of an idea in some obscure Hungarian journal. A few years later, he would send a series of notes to the French Academy's Comptes Rendus in which the same material was further elaborated. A few more years would pass, and he would publish the definitive paper, either in French or in English. Adam Koranyi, who took courses with Frederick Riesz, told me that Riesz would lecture on the same subject year after year, while meditating on the definitive version to be written. No wonder the final version was perfect.
Riesz' example is worth following. The mathematical community is split into small groups, each one with its own customs, notation and terminology. It may soon be indispensable to present the same result in several versions, each one accessible to a specific group; the price one might have to pay otherwise is to have our work rediscovered by someone who uses a different language and notation, and who will rightly claim it as his own.
  • #6
We should all breathe deeply and recall Sir Winton's words on a related topic:

'Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…
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Astronuc said:

I don't know it's that bad, at least in my fields. But I have seen some poor papers that are disappointing. And I've seen essentially the same paper in 2 or 3 different journals with little new information is successive versions.
I think that the point of the originial comic is more ambiguous than a simple critique of scientific publishing. Looking at it through different lenses, the focus can also shift to Science as a human endeavor with inherent flaws and joys instead of an abstract and ideal process. Or to Science hitting diminishing returns (since many easy things have been done already, it seems that we need more and more ressources, like equipment and brain power, to make impactful discoveries).

In any case, just because a paper falls into one of the categories of the comic doesn't mean that it's bad science. "We are 500 scientists and here's what we've been up to for the last 10 years" for example is a reasonably accurate description of the two papers which announced the discovery of the Higgs Boson.
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  • #8
Other fields are running with it

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  • #9
caz said:
Other fields are running with it
Cory Doctorow has collected some.

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  • #10
I could add a paper in Glaciology - "This glacier is melting, and we found some old stuff". Glaciology and history in one paper!

In the field of energy, one could find: Nuclear good, fossil bad (coal is the worst) vs fossil good, nuclear bad.
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  • #12
Swamp Thing said:
We crossed a dolphin with a cow, and THIS happened...
I explained to my son when we heard this one the radio, when it comes to tinkering with things like this, 'just because one can, doesn't mean one should'. There are somethings that are best left undone.

Related to An XKCD comic—and the absurdity of academic research/publishing

1. Why does the XKCD comic poke fun at academic research and publishing?

The XKCD comic is known for its satirical take on various topics, including science and academia. In this particular comic, the author is highlighting the often absurd and convoluted processes involved in academic research and publishing.

2. Is there any truth to the portrayal of academic research and publishing in the comic?

While the comic may exaggerate certain aspects, there is some truth to the portrayal. The process of conducting research, writing papers, and getting them published can be lengthy and complicated, with many obstacles and challenges along the way.

3. What message is the comic trying to convey about academic research and publishing?

The comic is trying to highlight the flaws and absurdities in the current system of academic research and publishing. It also serves as a commentary on the pressure to constantly produce and publish in order to advance in academia.

4. How can the current system of academic research and publishing be improved?

There are ongoing discussions and efforts to improve the current system, such as promoting open access publishing and implementing more transparent and efficient peer review processes. However, it will likely require a collective effort from researchers, publishers, and institutions to bring about significant changes.

5. What can researchers and academics take away from the comic?

The comic serves as a reminder to not take the academic system too seriously and to maintain a sense of humor about the challenges and absurdities that come with it. It also encourages critical thinking and reflection on how the system can be improved for the benefit of all involved.

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