The Usefulness of Useless Academic Papers

No, I am not thinking about toilet paper, recycling, or paper airplanes. Elon Musk recently stated that academic papers are useless.

(See min 9:30)

If that is true then I have done quite a few useless things with my life. But let’s not jump to conclusions. Although a lot of people seem to agree that there are indeed many useless academic papers (and having read a few hundred of those I concur) we should give them a fighting chance.

Before we do, however, let me point out a few things:

“Academic papers” that are published in unknown websites or conferences and dubiously peer reviewed do not count; they are the academic equivalent of the “lose 30 lbs. in 3 days with this magic pill”. On the other hand, accredited and “respected” resources does not mean that everything that gets in is useful (or even fine).

Here is how useless papers are useful:

  1. Only important research allowed past this point. Here is a short anecdote from Dick Karp: “The late computer science professor (and Turing award winner) Bob Floyd, who was CS department chairman at the time, once told me that 90% of the material in the Stanford library system were useless. So I asked him, “Which 90%?” This is no trivial question, and in fact I don’t think Turing himself would have been able to answer it, however, since I am writing this I will go ahead and take a few liberties. The 90% that are useless are those that contain the things you don’t need, are not looking for, or are outdated. A lot of useless research papers have been useful to someone, and there really is no one capable of judging interdisciplinary and internationally the usefulness of each paper (regardless of citations, but we will get to that later). However, some things like “Pressures produced when penguins pooh: calculations on avian defecation” or ““Effects of cocaine on honey bee dance behavior” are just plain hard to see an immediate or practical use for them. Even if you did, I don’t think you would look for the information with titles like this.
  1. Theory and practice are different. This is the real life lab setting, we make mistakes, we work on them, and we learn from them, rendering many results outdated by the time we are done. Some things that seem obvious turn out not to be that obvious when you try them out. It is usually our hope that this theory will lead to practice, however, we cannot guarantee that when writing a research paper.theory and practice
  2. Some accredited sources get it wrong sometimes. Again, there is no fool-proof reviewing process. Then again, there is no fool-proof anything in this world. We can accept this, move on, and laugh a little:

    crappy papers
    This particular quote was missed by the 5 authors, the peer-reviewers, and the editors. Gabor on the other hand has had her papers cited hundreds of times, which goes on to say that in addition, not even the authors read the research papers (or more realistically, all researchers have been under deadline pressure).

  3. Don’t be negative… wait, no. Negative results are also contributions. If there is another researcher trying to make a light bulb, it would be useful for them to know how not to do it or what doesn’t work. A lot of negative results lead to great discovery, however, it is unlikely that journals will like to publish this. In addition, it’s even more unlikely that you will get recognition for discovering a way not to do something. Unfortunately, this leads to redundant failures. Then again, if we reported all negative results we would encourage people to fail (nothing too wrong with that in my humble opinion) and that would lead to an even larger data influx making it even harder to sort and figure out (now this would be a problem).


On the other hand, here is how useful papers are useless:

  1. Sometimes we really know what we are doing. That means there is not time to explain. Since we know it’s correct, we sometimes get immersed in our technical jargon and nomenclatures and forget that although other experts in the field will read this, they might not know what that means.Chem research

There are even research papers that talks about how to understand (Chemistry) research papers.

  1. Buzzword, buzzword, buzzword. The world (including research communities) has laughed at our attempts to make research sound important. To do that we use the equivalent language of a car or insurance salesman. To make it worse, it is the standard, if you don’t use it, your research doesn’t stand out, but it’s not really necessary and many times it just obscures the real meaning.
  2. Research papers are… well… paper! We have augmented reality, virtual reality, or even traditional multimedia (audio, video, pictures!), why the heck do we still do this on paper? It is not only an inefficient way of communicating information, it’s also time consuming and more difficult to understand. Now, I can see how some people like traditional research papers. It is true that to do this as a multimedia presentation one would require to put significant effort. It is also true that some things might get lost, however, I say that paper should be the complement, not the other way around. National Geographic can make a documentary about the Earth’s Giant Hole interesting and understandable in a way that it is unlikely to get any research paper very far. In other words, you might read on the news or travel blogs, but it is unlikely that even as a scientist you would ever read a research paper about it. Then, all your information is secondhand (and we scientists complain about that) but we take it because we are too lazy or it is too boring to get it firsthand. My argument here? This should not be the case, and there are things we can do about it.

The ugly.

I will keep this section short as it is ugly and self-explanatory.

  1. Publish or perish.
    Publish or perish

Cartoon by Nick Kim

This picture is the full embodiment of this sentiment. Also, as I have mentioned in a past post: “Peter Higgs, the British physicist who gave his name to the Higgs boson, believes no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered “productive” enough.

  1. Finding the needle in the haystack. Recently, I was reading a research paper with some colleagues. It talked about a “validated measure” of certain human behavior I do research in. They cited another paper as having the measure. I went there not only to find that it was a modification of the other one, but also that they referenced another paper for it. Rinse and repeat five times into it until I found (what I think is) the original source. All the other sources cited someone that cited someone that did a modification of the modification that eventually sort of led here. This is a big deal, researchers have to spend too much time searching for the source.
  2. To cite, or not to cite, where is the value? Again, some widely cited sources (like the original paper on DNA, which researchers have known it to be wrong for almost 60 years) serve more of a historical purpose than actual citation material, yet, it is common that a misleading paper or disproved research has more citations than valuable current research. My point? Citations should not be used as a measure of research paper value.
  3. My effort is not to be freely shared or I am afraid people will pursue the same line of research I do. This is ugly because why then would you publish your research for something other than recognition. This also suggests that the publications are not very valuable or enlightening. Then again, scientists would not want to create direct competition on an already competitive field with not enough funding for everyone.

In the end, I would like to close my rambling with a portal quote:


You can (and should) listen to the full song here:

2 thoughts on “The Usefulness of Useless Academic Papers

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