Sparring.

March 6, 2007

One of the fun parts of working in academia is being correct. I work on a collaborative project between two Universities; one here in Scotland, the other being in England. The two halves of the one group are roughly the same size.

Part of the problem with collaborative projects in academia is that the two halves generally have their own agendas, their own goals, and very little to tie the two halves together. Without shareholders, or deadlines, or profit margins to worry about, the two halves may even let months pass without communicating. There is no big push for a final product, there’s no need to have a deliverable at the end of the day. The only “product,” if that’s what you want to call it, is the output of papers. Everybody’s citation count is boosted, and the amount of junk available in the literature is increased. I feel bad for the resulting affect on the signal to noise ratio, but this is quite simply how academia works.

Now and then, one half of the group attempts to gain the upper hand by refuting recent work by the other half. It’s funny, really, because I’m generally quite good at punting back a response on the group’s mailing list that puts them firmly back into place.

Saturday night’s email, and I’m often disappointed when they see fit to work weekends, initially appeared to be well worded, structured correctly, and offered a good argument. Unfortunately, their argument was flawed.

The mail attempted to suggest that my recent work was not as thoroughly researched as it should be, and that it didn’t solve one particular scenario. My response, however, was quick to point out that my recent work did manage to cover all the salient points, and my solution fitted the requirements perfectly. My solution but does not solve all problems, but only because there are problems that the project as a whole never intended to solve. (Anyway, an overbearing solution is most likely not possible; if it is, it would take much longer than we have to find it.) My favourite part of my response involved deftly pointing out how the existing architecture (as a whole, not this one segment of the project) solves the specific argument perfectly, without any alteration whatsoever, and that the problem is actually not related to my work, but to theirs. It always feels good to pin them down and stop them from spinning out another layer of unnecessary abstraction.

It’s annoying being correct all the time, but them’s the breaks.

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