Archive for July, 2012

American bureaucracy is often nasty, not necessarily because of the excessive love for paperwork (although that certainly plays a role), but rather due to the tendency to follow every rule to the letter even if it doesn’t make sense. Perhaps surprisingly, the bureaucracy at American universities is as unbending as anywhere else.

Harry Lewis, a professor of CS at Harvard and former dean of Harvard College (and an active member of CRCS, where I was a postdoc fellow), recently quoted the following insightful paragraph on his blog:

But morality, not to mention common sense, plays little part in the functioning of our modern universities. The role of academic administrators these days – and this has been true for much of the past 25 years – is to prevent criticism of the institution. This has resulted in the growth of huge public relations infrastructures that team up with fund-raising (“development”) infrastructures. General Counsels have taken charge of much that goes on at the modern university. At their order, universities operate largely on this theory of “risk reduction” – that is to say, things are done not because they are right, nor because they enhance the institution’s educational or scholarly missions. Instead, they are done to protect the institution’s reputation, to protect the jobs of the administrators (for whom general counsel works), to keep the institution from losing government funds, and to keep the institution from getting sued. Truth, principle, and the education and welfare of young people have little to do with it. … The modern administrative university is a business machine without a soul. It is an administrative fiefdom that operates outside of the sights and controls of its governing boards or its alumni, with the primary goal of avoiding criticism.

Though this statement is perhaps too black and white, it does resonate with me.  I have a few good examples of how strict bureaucracy can get in the way of doing science, based on my limited experience in Harvard and CMU (which presumably are representative of other good, private American universities), but I don’t want to air my dirty laundry in public. Instead, I’ll give two “harmless” examples from this past year at CMU.

A few weeks after I started working at CMU, CS faculty were required to attend a training session on sexual harassment. I naively assumed that the purpose of such a session would be to create a more supportive and pleasant working environment for men and women alike, thereby indirectly leading to better science and education. However, it quickly became clear that the purpose was to prevent the university from being sued. The discussion was led by a lawyer who explained that, as agents of the university, the university is liable for our actions, and illustrated how dire the situation was using detailed examples of other universities that did get sued.

As a second example, I taught my first lecture at CMU in mid January. It was bitterly cold outside, but it was warm indoors so I went down to class wearing a T-shirt. As I was plugging my laptop in, the fire alarm sounded. It would have taken a while to go to my office and get my three additional layers of clothing, so I figured I would just walk towards the exit and hang out indoors. As soon as I stopped marching towards the door though, I was informed that the university can be sued if I don’t actually leave the building; so I did. I wonder if the university would get sued if, under these circumstances, its employees froze to death.

Of course, Israeli universities take the opposite point of view: there are very few rules or requirements, which are moreover regarded as friendly suggestions. Sometimes things work out amazingly well, and sometimes chaos reigns supreme. Ah, those were the days!


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This morning a CMU colleague posted on Google+ a gentlemanly apology about a magazine article that featured his work; in the interview he did not give sufficient credit to a student. I mentioned this to him in the elevator, and we chatted briefly about the difficulty of assigning credit in academia.

This encounter reminded me of Valencia, and I wasn’t thinking about paella. The AAMAS best paper and one of the EC best papers have six authors each, listed in alphabetical order (incidentally, the intersection of the two author lists is nonempty). Now, I am all for alphabetical author ordering, and use it myself whenever possible (in particular, I can’t complain about EC’12 papers with six authors in alphabetical order). But sometimes it is important to know how to assign credit, especially when dealing with award papers or other influential papers that can have an impact on their authors’ careers; doubly so when the influential paper has more than 400 authors (see the last four pages). Of course this issue is typically dealt with through recommendation letters, but it’s not a perfect solution and the information doesn’t always come through.

In some CS communities, such as systems and AI, authors are typically ordered by contribution. In other disciplines such as medicine papers often have fifteen authors or more, but the ninth author’s contribution is typically on the level of catching a lab mouse that was trying to escape. Although this is a more informative way of assigning credit,  I’ve heard many stories of huge fights breaking out.

So is there a better way of assigning scientific credit? Yes! In theory… A beautiful JET 2008 paper by de Clippel, Moulin, and Tideman studies the allocation of a (homogeneous) divisible good. The setting fits the assignment of scientific credit perfectly, although as far as I can tell this potential application is not mentioned in the paper.

The main property one would ask for is impartiality: your share of the credit should only depend on your coauthors’ reports (I think this property is equivalent to strategyproofness when your utility is strictly increasing with your share of the credit).  Another basic property that de Clippel et al. ask for, which connects the reports with the credit division, is consensuality: if there is a division that agrees with all individual reports then it must be the outcome.

In their model, each player i reports an evaluation r^i_{jk} for every two players j,k\in N\setminus \{i\}, where N is the set of players. A report r^i_{jk}=x means that i thinks j deserves x times the credit that k gets. Perhaps a more intuitive way of thinking about the model is that each player reports normalized values that specify how the other players’ share of the credit should be divided among them; the ratios can be obtained by dividing pairs of such reported values.

The case of three players turns out to be rather straightforward. The unique mechanism that is impartial and consensual assigns to player i the share 1/(1+r^j_{ki}+r^k_{ji}), where k and j are the two other players. The bad news is that this mechanism allocates the entire credit if and only if the reports are consensual (which happens if and only if r^1_{23}r^2_{31}r^3_{12}=1). In other words, for three players there is no impartial and consensual mechanism that allocates the entire credit. (Of course I am omitting some details; you can find them in the paper.)

Fortunately, it can be argued that we don’t really need credit division unless there are many authors, and for the case of four and more players de Clippel et al. give a family of (rather complicated)  mechanisms that output an exact allocation, and satisfy impartiality and consensuality, as well as two other desiderata: anonymity (in the sense that the mechanism is indifferent to the identity of the players) and continuity.

I toyed for a while with the idea of demonstrating how serious I am by choosing a paper where my share of the credit is small and convincing my coauthors to report evaluations. Ultimately, on top of embarrassing my coauthors, I realized I would have to figure out the gory details of the 4+ player mechanisms. For now it is amusingly self-referential to imagine de Clippel et al. dividing the credit for their paper using the methods therein; with only three authors, I sure hope their evaluations would be consensual!

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