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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Practical Programmer: Academics, and the Scarlet Letter 'A'

  • "Scarlet letter: a scarlet letter 'A' formerly worn by a person convicted of adultery"
    —Oxford American Dictionary

This column isn't about what you think it's about based on the opening quotation. (This is known as a "truth-in-column-writing" introduction.) Instead, it's going to be about a whole new meaning for the scarlet letter "A," one much more appropriate to the readers of Communications.

What other meaning could that scarlet letter have, after Nathaniel Hawthorne did such a good job of elaborating that first, dictionary, meaning in his novel, The Scarlet Letter ?

There is an uneasy relationship at best between academics and the practitioners. I have discussed before, in this column and others, several topics touching on that uneasy relationship—the "communication chasm" between these two groups; the controversial issue of whether criticism of academe is "divisive" and the "creeping buzzwordism" that results when some academics who know nothing of either practice or banking try to implement a significant, bet-the-bank banking application. Readers have answered those discussions with a rewarding, sometimes supportive, sometimes critical, collection of responses.

In this column, I want to revisit it. But in this case, I want to begin by saying something extremely positive about the academics in my reading audience. This topic has to do with who academics are, and what they are about.

Two of the best things I believe can be said about academics—they are extremely bright people, and they are truth-seekers.

Extremely bright? The process of getting a Ph.D., which by now most academics are required to have, is both laborious and consuming. And the knowledge they must ingest in order to achieve the Ph.D. is considerable and complex. Only the brightest of the bright can make it through that process and acquire that knowledge. Academics are capable, intelligent, thinking people.

Truth-seekers? Down through the ages, academe has been the bastion of the independent thinker, the person who was willing to risk all manner of things to obtain and disseminate truth. If you wanted to explore a topic in a way that cut away all the blather and old husband's tales, it was an academic whose support you sought.

But there's a problem in all of this academic wonderfulness. Recently, in my role as editor of a largely academic journal, I received a review of a paper. The paper was written by an academic, but—more to the point—so was the review. (As you academics already know, that's the way things work in the academic world—"publish or perish." Professors submit their work to a journal, it is peer reviewed and the fittest of the submittals survive and are published.) The reviewer's reaction to the paper was that "the author of the paper needs to do a better job of selling his or her work."

Selling the work, indeed! Whatever happened to the honorable profession of truth-seeker? If an academic has done a good job of studying and describing his or her subject, the truth of what was learned should shine forth like a bright star. It should need no embellishment, no "selling." Oh, of course there is a need for what most academics call "motivation"—a discussion of why the topic of the paper and its findings are important. But selling? Something vitally important has been lost when academics start doing that.

There are a couple of reasons why I thought this was a topic important enough for my sort-of-rant in these pages. The first reason is the obvious one—this particular reviewer had somehow lost track of the most honorable part of the academic's profession.

The second reason is more subtle—and more serious. All too often present-day computing academics do precisely what this reviewer recommended. They attempt to sell their belief set. They advocate, rather than investigate, ideas. They scold practitioners for not adopting the ideas they advocate. They do a superficial analysis of a topic, discarding or explaining away the findings that don't agree with their already-established biases, and then publish yet-another laudatory article about some academic-computing-establishment topic. There isn't the hint of a thought, in their work, that the computing conventional wisdom might be questioned—or even questionable.

If an academic has done a good job of studying and describing his or her subject, the truth of what was learned should shine forth like a bright star.

Now I'm happy to report, in the spirit of "some of my best friends are academics," that most academics aren't like that. There remains a potent force of bright truth-seekers in academe. But, unfortunately, the good ones are reluctant to rattle the cages of the not-so-good-ones. When did you ever see an academic take the position that another academic did the computing community a disservice for advocating instead of investigating? Academic paper reviews may be criticized on the basis of incompetency or inadequacy, but rarely on the basis of irrelevance or unethicalness.

And that's a shame. Because the computing world desperately needs those very bright, truth-seeking academics. Ones willing, when it becomes necessary, to post the scarlet letter "A" for Advocate on the foreheads of their colleagues who deserve it.

So there you have it—the scarlet letter "A," with a whole new meaning. One which, if acted upon by those in a position to do so, could significantly improve that "uneasy relationship" I spoke of at the beginning of this column.

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Robert Glass ( is the publisher of the Software Practitioner newsletter and editor of Elsevier's Journal of Systems and Software.

©2001 ACM  0002-0782/01/0400  $5.00

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