Jun. 2nd, 2015

A couple weeks ago, I was reading a pretty excellent paper on internet password research. As I read, found myself becoming vexed. Here was an eminently practical paper, giving very practical suggestions that any web developer could act upon right away... and yet I never would have read the thing at all if I hadn't had a friend in academia who happened to give me a link to it.

What other useful stuff has academia been doing without my noticing, and how can I find out about it?

Like (I suspect) most software engineers, I get my industry news/trends/updates/etc from a smattering of populist-ish sources such as: blogs of programmers I admire, blogs of friends, Hacker News (with reluctance), sometimes Slashdot, that sort of thing. If the password security paper had wanted to spread its ideas via one of those channels, it seems like it'd be pretty doable. Simply extracting the "take-away points" section of that paper into a blog post would make for solid reading, and a link to the full paper could be included for the curious.

I know that I would love it if more academics shared casually-worded summaries of their papers. Even when I'm planning to read the full paper, I'll try to ask someone else "so what's this actually about" before I do. Usually, the on-the-spot, casually-worded summary is more transparent than the abstract, and helps me direct my reading better.

There's also an argument to be made that perhaps software engineers as a whole should really have a source for industry news that doesn't involve upvotes or Randos On The Internet. I would be tremendously curious to hear from engineers in other fields about this—has some other group found a tidy compromise between social news sites and impenetrable academic journals? I suspect this sort of compromise is what the ACM Queue is trying to accomplish, but I only know about the Queue because of, well, another friend in academia. Maybe the Queue just needs a better PR department?

In any case, while not every field seems to be affected by social-industry-news-sharing the same way software is (medicine, for instance, requires that doctors complete X hours of professional development, done via formal exams, classes, and so on), this isn't a problem solely afflicting software engineering, either. I was prompted to write this post after stumbling onto an article about the Volokh Conspiracy, a blog by a handful of legal scholars that apparently has become just as influential as major law journals in shaping US legal thought—arguably moreso, since they can offer faster feedback than the journals can. And as far as I can tell, arXiv has become the "open beta test" for papers in fields like math and astrophysics as well as CS—and I'll sometimes see arXiv posts linked on Facebook or whatnot.

I'd love comments from folks who understand how other fields handle this dilemma, or who have cool ideas I haven't thought of yet!