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The independent researcher (nadiaeghbal.com)
244 points by hardmaru 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 91 comments



I've done an enormous amount of independent (and fairly successful) computer science research over the last two decades. Computer science is amenable to it if you are willing to make a large investment of time. The challenge is that making this research useful to other people requires an even bigger investment of time, which creates a somewhat adverse incentive.

At least for me, there is one giant gap I've ever never been able to cross. I am willing to spend an inordinate amount of time solving interesting theory problems and doing novel algorithm design work because it is useful to some cutting edge software problem I am working on. However, I have almost zero incentive to spend the significant amount of time to publish any of my research, whereas academics do. My time is enormously oversubscribed as it is. My benefit is that I can reduce it to practice and build software that does things no one else can do (and I enjoy the research generally). I know a few other people in the same boat; great researchers, no time or incentive to publish.

I've never been able to reconcile this. There is a similar analogue in open sourcing software. Open sourcing your software often increases the amount of time you need to invest in it in practice, which disincentives people with limited time to open source code (and after they already invested their extra time creating the code in the first place) that they otherwise would be amenable to open sourcing.


I think an important thing to take into account is that a very important part of what makes a good scientist is not just how good they are at "doing science", but how good they are at communicating it. A good scientist is a good communicator. Even if that means finding people who you can work with who are good communicators, it's part of the job. Coding up a really clever solution and just kind of hoping people will come across it and appreciate is not really doing science. (Not saying that's what you are doing, I'm just going on a tangent here.) The point is, ever since the enlightenment, a strictly critical part of the job of being a scientist has been the ability to elaborate your ideas to others, and to argue for its merit.

So yeah, doing the work is the fun and motivating part, but a big part of the reason that the academic community values well-written scientific papers is because all that work can go to waste if it is not described (and defended!) in a way that is clear and convincing (to the relevant audience of course).

Grad students may complain about having to learn to write effective papers, but it's literally just as important as the technical work they are doing --- maybe moreso, since in the future they may very likely change topics, and the writing and communication skills is the part that will carry forward throughout their career.


I'm reminded of the saying that "Publishing research without data is simply advertising, not science". Not even publishing the research means it doesn't have a chance at advancing the state of the art. I don't understand how such research can be successful at anything other than selling a few extra copies of a software product likely to disappear within a handful of years. Unless it's implemented as the absolute killer feature of a very successful product it's very unlikely anyone will ever know there's anything novel in there.


The research does get disseminated, just slowly. The transmission vector is contact with other people with firsthand knowledge of the research. It becomes an oral tradition, which makes it difficult to break into and is inefficient. I've come across many non-publishing research communities in various parts of computer science that continue to develop and share the state-of-the-art amongst themselves. The research isn't being lost, it is just compartmentalized.

For example, there is an elegant cache replacement algorithm I learned from a database kernel engineer a decade ago, one of those algorithms that is so obvious in hindsight that you can't believe it never occurred to you. It solves a key problem with the algorithms everyone knows in literature. I've used it ever since and taught a bunch of other database kernel engineers the same algorithm. I have no idea where the person I learned it from got it, but the literature still treats it like an unsolved problem. Many engineers are using it in more and more systems, and there are a few different variants in the wild, but no one has bothered to write it down AFAICT.

The salient point is that academia is not the only community that develops and defines the state-of-the-art in computer science, but at least they publish. Without an incentive for non-publishing research communities to publish, it becomes difficult for an outside academic to break into some fields because there isn't an obvious entry point.


Is there a chance you can point us to a code snippet of said cache algorithm, or elaborate a bit?

If it's simple and elegant in hindsight this insight might be interesting in other CS applications. Not cross sharing and reinventing wheels is a somewhat sad implication from the compartmentalization you mention.


Is the issue with publishing your findings the grind of submitting to a journal and going through the standard review process? Because in that case, would just throwing up a high level overview on arxiv work for you? It sounds like you aren't adverse to sharing the results of your research if the activation energy was eliminated (or substantially reduced).


It is possible to recognize how much the publishing process is useful and still feel it is perfectible. It made me think a bit about the state of research when Paul Krugman was explaining that at his point, communication between researchers basically happens between arxiv and blogs. Official publications come at a later time as part of a validation of the whole process, but its cycle is too slow to be useful anymore.

In CS and especially in things related to deep learning, I can understand that pausing to publish can be felt like a delay.

I feel like the typical publication format is not well adapted to CS. For instance, a big point of formal publications is to give other researchers the tools to reproduce your experiments. Why is it not the norm to offer source code or even docker containers then?


Grad students complain about a lot of things, but I’ve literally never heard one complain about having to write good papers.

They could complain, however, that PhD training contains shockingly little on how to write effectively, given the skill’s importance to most post-PhD jobs. To make matters worse, any training is often front-loaded at the beginning of a program so those skills are atrophied by the time PhD candidates have their own data to write up.

If I am ever in charge of a graduate program, I’m putting everyone through a 10 week expository writing class around year 3.5-4. I took one in grade 12 and that public high school class literally beat most Ivy League grad seminars for (academic) career prep.



I think the dissemination part is a collective action problem. Simply put, society has not set up opportunities to induce/encourage researchers outside the academic scaffolding to share their work. Given that, it comes down to a question of who cares most about the dissemination. If neither the person who would be writing, nor the putative audience cares about it enough, who would want to put effort into the dissemination process?

Creating such a two-sided market for research output is a hard problem, roughly analogous to what Uber has done for ride-sharing. The current academic/think-tank setup is an intricate triangle consisting of the grant process to match donors with researchers seeking funds, the publication process to match research output to downstream demands, and publication metrics (citation count, reputation, impact factor, etc.) to match downstream demands with funding agencies.


The academic publication process is a mess, but you don’t have to go down that route: write documentation and blog about it. The scholarship is in how you compare and contrast with other similar solutions, and how you describe where you got ideas from.


I had this issue during grad school. The research was the fun part. Writing my results up into a paper and formatting it for submission to journals... not as much fun.


Academic here. I agree with you, and I think the majority of academics would. After all, most of us get into the field because we like research itself, not because we like writing. But the thing is that research is useless if you don't communicate it. A researcher that doesn't write is like a cook that throws their food directly to the bin, or a singer that only sings in the shower. It's legitimate that they do it for fun, but no one would consider them to be a cook and a singer, or take their work seriously.

Anyway, if you had kept doing research after grad school and climbing the ranks of academia (I assume from the wording that you didn't) you would see that writing papers is far from the worst part... in grad school I often did research to procrastinate writing a paper, now I often write a paper to procrastinate writing a grant request or doing paperwork... :)


Have you considered finding a partner who has time and is willing to write things up for you?


You need grad students to write papers for you...


Teaching them how to write good papers takes way more time than writing papers yourself.


I think I'm a good bit earlier in my career, but I've been in a similar situation for a number of years now. It was extremely discouraging to me when I discovered that the typical result of my spending years (in some cases) researching and developing some software/ideas[0] would be far from gratitude and offers of financial assistance or employment to pursue these obviously important subjects ;)

Instead the breakdown of responses has been something like 20% dismissals following a cursory reading, and suggestions that what I was doing was some other extremely commonplace thing I was already well aware of and could precisely relate to what I was actually talking about[1]; 30% people saying essentially, "ooh, neat!" and then moving on; 20% inquiries from genuinely interested folks, often times professional researchers (often possible to get the main idea across with them, but still: unless what you're doing relates in a very direct and positive way to their work, that's not going to go anywhere); 30% various, with a surprising amount of hostility mixed into all the categories (except the "ooh, neat!" people).

It has certainly helped in the professional realm (for software engineering, not research)—though not in the way I would've hoped. By far the most typical thing is some potential employer sees your work and is like, "oh wow, he must be good to have made this—I can get him to write LOTS of CODE for me!!" but they'll use their knowledge that you value developing original ideas to lure you in, pretending they also care about your ideas, and then allow the memory to slowly fade as your new role doing totally vanilla software engineering solidifies.

I actually had someone offer to give me a place to live and pay monthly expenses and tried to arrange for me to move to another state (all the time claiming the world needed the ideas I was working on). I told them about my experience with the above and said that I was maybe paranoid but wasn't getting into something with potential for that again; he replied that it wasn't paranoia but wisdom and we ended our discussion.

So now... I realize if you work hard and develop new ideas that may (or may not) end up being important, no one's going to help you unless you turn it into a product or do it in the context of Academia. It's hard work to communicate new ideas, and all too easy to just let them sit rather than doing that hard and often unforgiving work. But I'm still excited about working on the ideas so whatever, for now.

----

[0] To give some context for the kind of ideas/software I'm talking about: I (re-)discovered the idea of a structure editor/projectional editor, not knowing what a grammar or AST even was at the time (I was going to develop a 'linguistic constraint description language' before discovering formal grammars), and built a novel incarnation that may still have lots of potential (almost forgot: it also included a modular system that did something like language-agnostic full-language auto-complete; essentially the inverse of a 'compiler compiler' so I call it a 'generator generator'). That project was largely re-discovery, but led to a formulation for a new general architecture for programming tools built around very simple 'program models' and 'language models' (this is what I'm most interested in pursuing now). I also developed a new kind of general purpose interactive data structure visualization system, which I see as an incarnation of a more general notion of an 'abstractoscope' (something to allow us to usefully/systematically remove detail, rather than adding it like e.g. a microscope).

[1] I read recently that Douglas Engelbart had so much trouble with this precise phenomenon (people assuming whatever new idea you're talking about is some common thing from the framework they're used to thinking in), that it inspired him to give a more explicit philosophical grounding/context/framework for his idea, which resulted in a famous piece of writing of his (can't remember the name atm).


> By far the most typical thing is some potential employer sees your work and is like, "oh wow, he must be good to have made this—I can get him to write LOTS of CODE for me!!" but they'll use their knowledge that you value developing original ideas to lure you in, pretending they also care about your ideas, and then allow the memory to slowly fade as your new role doing totally vanilla software engineering solidifies.

I laughed. While I've never heard employer say that explicitly, it fits with my experience. Many employers seem to think solely about what a candidate can do for them and not in terms of what they can do for the candidate.

When phrased like that, the employer might say something like "But we have generous pay/benefits/whatever!", which just shows that they don't understand their problem. I'd gladly take a reduction in pay and benefits if it gave me more control over my work.

It might be worth asking a potential employer who claims to value your work to state in the employment contract that you can choose X hours per week for your own work. This would be a more formal way to test how serious a potential employer is about your work. Unfortunately few employers seem to be willing to make that deal, but after I finish my PhD I'll be asking.


Hehe, yeah, it's been surprising how common that pattern is. I fell for it once when a prospective employer found a demo video of mine on the front page here and sent me an email saying, "I can offer you the opportunity to continue and extend your work here at <company>"—but since then I can smell the trap coming and have been able to avoid it.


The true problem is time, at least in fields like CS where expensive instruments aren’t really needed to do research (not as much as other fields).

You need the freedom of time and being able to fully dedicate yourself towards a specific study if you want to make any real contribution.

And I’d say that academia is struggling at doing science nowadays also because you’re stuck doing all kinds of other things with your time rather than actual research.

It’s hard to tell what the right formula is for being a productive scientist and surely everybody’s free at doing it.

I have a feeling that something like Universal Basic Income would give this freedom of time to crowds that can lead towards more people doing science and hence more discoveries.


The comment on Universal Basic Income makes me realize that perhaps I've thought about UBI all wrong. So often people talk about the average (or perhaps median) societal output (if we can somewhat crassly call it that) of folks on UBI.

But if it could lead to a breakthrough akin to Borlaug's wheat varieties, which according to the article is responsible for saving .5 billion lives, then that alone would justify the entire program.


I am strongly for basic income because I know for a fact that if I got UBI I would heavily contribute to OpenStreetMap and other libre projects, and I would publish the occasional paper in the field that I studied at university.

As it is, I already do those things, because as a digital nomad I only have to work 2–3 days a week – I make a Western salary but I stay in cheaper countries. By why should the ability to make those alternative contributions only be available to "rich" people like me? It isn’t fair that other nerds who want to contribute like that are instead forced to take energy and time-sapping jobs, jobs that arguably contribute less to humanity in spite of purely economic arguments.


The other perspective is you can't always do work on interesting, fundamentally game changing problems. Some people maintain infrastructure and keep things running, and while those jobs can at times, look boring, thankless, and energy zapping - someone needs to do them.

Honestly there are plenty of people working in the most mundane areas of life doing exciting, novel things. The difference is no one notices it, until someone happens upon it, learns from it, combines it with their understanding, aggregates, synthesizes, culminating in recognition. Information is fundamentally open, we stand on the shoulders of giants, etc. When you come to an awareness or an epiphany, think of how you got there. Some of it comes from you, but a lot of it comes from things that aren't you. That's the problem with recognition. Sometimes the giants you stand on are the people you don't agree with.

Computer scientists stand on each other's toes, and so on. Falling too deeply in this awareness is like swimming in a sea of your own conscienceness, but it's important to remember, be thankful, humble, and try to give back more than you take. There are plenty of nerds out there working on interesting problems. They just don't look sexy on the outside because the interesting parts are all at the core of the technology, stuff you learn from, but don't know how to see well enough, quite yet.


> I have a feeling that something like Universal Basic Income would give this freedom of time to crowds that can lead towards more people doing science and hence more discoveries.

Agreed. When I was in graduate school I remember thinking that if we had UBI, everyone would become a scientist. I'm sure this was biased by my own interests, but the work often was truly thrilling. Sadly, it is very difficult to find opportunities in academia or industry to pursue work that one finds meaningful without major strings attached.

Most of my graduate school colleagues have left research. I'm a research scientist in industry, but it is increasingly obvious to me that this is relatively rare, particularly given the intellectual freedom and institutional support I am provided. And certainly much of my time is focused on work that has benefit to the corporation, versus open ended projects.


if we had UBI, everyone would become a scientist

Very few people want to be scientists. To see why, just replace "scientist" with "nerd", because for most people those are synonyms.

Moreover, anyone who wants to do science can become a grad student. That's at least 5 years of "basic income", and access to mentors/tools/resources. All you have to do is to find a lab that does what you're interested in.


I never heard of a grad student program that pays you to do your research project. The ones I've seen, always offer a choice between paying you to work on someone else's research project, or you get to work on your project but you don't get paid; you do get access to facilities, but you have to pay an exorbitant fee for this. Am I missing something?


That's the opposite of my experience and understanding as a fresh PhD. In my field, social science, PhD students 100% own their research agenda. We get paid via a combination of grant (i.e. free money) and RA / TA work (i.e. money you work for). The better the program, the more of the money is free. And you always have the option to apply for external grants to fund yourself. In my (very fortunate) case, I rarely work on others' projects for more than 5 hours a week.

My friends in the natural sciences are more tied to the projects of their supervisors. But in the end they are still expected to be a mature researcher with their own agenda.

Caveat: I'm only certain that this is true for top-50 programs.


That's why I said you have to find a lab that does what you're interested in. I have done just that, and for the last 5 years as a phd student I've been paid mostly to do what I would do as a hobby otherwise (read/implement deep learning papers), and try to advance state of the art.


from my own experience, this is the exception, though. even in CS, if you pick some of the more theoretical problems or a not-so-hot area, you might not get funding - (almost) no matter how good you are. and that's CS. move to other subjects like sociology, linguistics, history, and you will find that barely anyone gets funded.


I haven't heard about anyone in any PhD program in US who's not funded one way or another. Sure, you might need to TA a class, but it's usually not that hard, and leaves plenty of time to do research.


> anyone who wants to do science can become a grad student

A grad student is an apprentice. This article is about a less taken path for a master. As a former PhD grad student, I can say most grad students are not in a position to conduct independent research. Most get attached to some funding obtained by someone more experienced than them, and then spend most of their time getting up to speed until they are able to write their own papers on that topic. But this leaves them a very narrow set of skills. This is why most academics go through a postdoc.


write their own papers on that topic

As long as that topic is what they would like to research, I don't see a problem. And if it's not, then they chose a wrong lab/advisor.

But this leaves them a very narrow set of skills

I developed a pretty wide range of skills as a phd student. From developing device models in Spice, to Tensorflow. In fact, I wish I focused on a subset of those skills.


"if we had UBI, everyone would become a scientist"

But then if everyone became a scientist (or whatever else they wanted to do) living off UBI, then where would the UBI come from?


The robots, of course! Joking aside, though, I believe the idea is that, because UBI is subsistence-level, there's still an incentive for those who can earn more (presumably by producing something) to do so, such that they can afford greater luxuries.

Although I'm not categorically opposed to UBI (for some definition of "B"), I am indeed, often concerned that proponents are taking their own personal attitudes and experiences, extrapolating to all other humans, without fully considering less appealling parts of human nature or potential negative emergent/systemic effects at scale.


I have mixed feelings about this.

It is true that modern funding of scientific research is flawed. Certainly in the US and probably everywhere. Almost any working scientist has plenty of stories about the silliness of bureaucratic requirements for governments, universities, or nonprofits. Almost any working scientist can name some people in their field who they think are severely overrated or even unethical (this seems to be more of an issue in lab sciences, somehow). Almost any working scientist has peer-review horror stories and admits that the process is noisy at best.

Still: there are real benefits to being a non-independent researcher. At this point it’s hard to get to the forefront of research — in pretty much any field — without extensive contact with the people who are there already, most of whom are not independent researchers. Failure to do so doesn’t just mean you want produce hip research that caters to the specific elite tastes of the establishment. It also drastically increases the likelihood that you’re wrong. Good research is hard; it’s even harder in isolation. Ther are hundreds and hundreds of papers about your favorite math/physics/computer science (it does seem easier to be an independent naturalist or something) conjectures floating around out there. Many of them sucked away years of their authors’ lives, and somewhere around 0% of then are correct.

I suppose my two cents for anybody seriously interested in independent research is to make it as easy as possible for credentialed researchers to interact with you. Learn what you can, read accepted literature, acquire some credentials yourself if possible, learn the language on Stackexchange or Mathoverflow. Definitely do not open your interactions with grandiose claims. Most researchers actually like their subjects; if you have something useful to tell them, they want to know. You just gotta make it as easy as possible for them to see you’re not a crank.


I suppose my two cents for anybody seriously interested in independent research is to make it as easy as possible for credentialed researchers to interact with you. Learn what you can, read accepted literature, acquire some credentials yourself if possible, learn the language on Stackexchange or Mathoverflow. Definitely do not open your interactions with grandiose claims. Most researchers actually like their subjects; if you have something useful to tell them, they want to know. You just gotta make it as easy as possible for them to see you’re not a crank.

That jibes with my experience for sure. The sample size is small, but I've found "traditional" academics to be quite receptive to engaging with me when approached the right way.

For example, I cold-emailed one of the two authors of a book I was reading, and asked for some datasets they had used in their research. The professor in question quickly replied with the data, a pre-print of a forthcoming paper, and an invite to keep him informed on how things were going.

I later emailed him with a technical question about something from the book, and he replied that he didn't know the answer offhand, as the research in question was done 20 some odd years ago, so he cc'd the other co-author and solicited his response. It took a few weeks (turns out he was on vacation) but he also responded, helped address my question, and asked some questions about what I was working on.

One of the two professors in question said during some of our email exchanges that they believe there's a real chance to come up with something useful going down the path I'm going down, which is encouraging.

Anyway, I suspect part of the key to engaging with academics is:

1. (as you said) don't open with some grandiose claim.

Rather, ask a question, preferably a "good" question (that is, something that shows you have done your homework, something that is specific enough to answer, etc.). Not "Can you tell me how to get started in X" where you could have just googled those exact same words and gotten an answer.

2. Do your homework and make it clear that you've your homework. If you start off with "I was reading your paper on X, and on page 3, in the equation for flibblegazz, I don't quite understand the notation you use..." or something, it shows that you're not just pulling crap out of the air. And if you're emailing the person who wrote the paper, you're appealing to their ego a bit in that you're telling them that you care enough about them, and their paper, to dig in. I suspect that unless someone is a "celebrity researcher" to the point that they get more requests than they can handle, they'll probably be inclined to try and help.

3. Do your homework in the sense of reading the basic texts in your area of interest, read papers in the area, learn the relevant math (mathoverflow and various sub-reddits are good places to ask math questions, BTW), etc.

4. It's related to a previous point, but showing interest in the work someone else has done is usually a good icebreaker. Asking for a preprint of a paper, or asking for a dataset, saying you want to try and replicate their work, things like that.

Do those things, go slowly, and just plain "be nice", and I think you can build a relationship over time, with the folks in "proper" academia. And that could be mutually beneficial. For example, you may eventually want to publish a paper in a journal, and your academic friends can probably help you there. You may even wind up collaborating to a level that justifies a co-authorship scenario, who knows?


Academic here:

Totally agreed with every point. These are great tips even for someone within academia interested in collaborating with someone else. It is a combination of shared interest, impedance-matching, and mutual respect.


This advice can probably be generalized to cold contacting people with questions about their work in general. Typically people who contact you want to do little work themselves, and expect the contactee to do the real work. But even asking something of a stranger can be edifying for both parties if approaches like this are taken.


I am pursuing a self-sponsored PhD at one of India's leading institute of science and technology. I have about 15 years of work experience, including building a product which has seen a good amount of commercial success.

Validation of idea's was one of the reasons I decided to enrol in the part-time doctoral program. Also, vetting of technologies I planned to use in my work was another reason to become a part of a central govt. funded institute. It is easier to collaborate with faculty members when you are part of academia than otherwise.

Having said that, I am now of the opinion that independent research is the most optimum way to pursue one's own ideas. If you are working in the space of citizen impact or developmental projects, engaging with journalism editors has a far more positive impact than engaging with academic faculty. The science editors are able to articulate and help you present your work better than most other people.

Another group of people, I feel, might be helpful are "true incubating mentors". If you are looking at taking your work to the next level, I feel an incubator/mentor will provide you with the right direction (I've myself not experienced this but have seen people benefit from this).


This is a great article but if you need a taste:

"My first go at independent research wasn’t necessarily easy. I didn’t know independent research was a viable path, and especially not in Silicon Valley, land of builders and shippers. I didn’t know whether I was doing something useful with my time, or whether I was just a crazy person.

A few years later, I’ve realized that the answer to that question doesn’t really matter. Life is short. Do whatever you can’t stop thinking about. Documenting your findings in public (regardless of outcomes!) is a worthy contribution to society, full stop. If you’re doing something new, and you care about understanding the problem, people will pay attention. What’s more, they’ll take your ideas and make them better than you’d ever imagined. And that style of research - living in service to the public - starts to look very different from the bloated, ivory tower models we’ve been accustomed to."


> whether I was doing something useful with my time, or whether I was just a crazy person.

This is grad school in a nutshell, but in the classical route, you have a lot of people to talk with who can tell you which bucket you're in.


> This is the dark side of independent research. Without external validation - “I teach at Stanford” or “I got a grant from NASA”, it’s hard to convince people that you’re any good at what you do.

This is one of the reasons double blind peer review can be appealing. It avoids credentialism, where the institutional reputation overrides honest evaluations of the paper quality. Even in my own reviews, it's hard not to be biased when I know the author is a luminary of the field.


> This is one of the reasons double blind peer review can be appealing. It avoids credentialism, where the institutional reputation overrides honest evaluations of the paper quality.

This is one of the things I really like about the top machine learning conferences at the moment. The reviews are open to all and blind to credentials. Combine that with the fact that even vast compute resources can be obtained fairly cheaply (at least for a short amount of time), and CS research is one of the more "democratic" fields that someone can be a part of nowadays.

This is in contrast to the research I performed during grad school, which required access to a billion dollar neutron source, and reviewers generally knew which institutions the papers were coming from...


Eh, more often than not, it's pretty clear who at least one of the authors of the paper is by just looking at what they cite. Double blind review is not a foolproof system of avoiding creds and appeals to authority.


From an article [0] published in last month's CACM, describing attempts by three 2016 conferences to anonymize papers:

We find that anonymization is imperfect but fairly effective: 70%–86% of the reviews were submitted with no author guesses, and 74%–90% of reviews were submitted with no correct guesses.

[0] https://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2018/6/228027-effectiveness-o...


I just figured out being an independent researcher is the best for me over time. It gives me the freedom to look at a problem space without noise. I consider even a partner or a group to be a noise. Also, it is true as said in this article that you do not need others approval if you can fund yourself and find a interesting problem to work on. I do like to go beyond just research for the sake of it and engineer / productise the ideas.


I became an "independent researcher" after I left my physics research job and moved to the country. With my trusty iMac and Internet access, I write and run computer codes using Xcode, do graphics and some analysis with Mathematica, read and get journal articles remotely (electronically) from a friendly university library, and write up the research using Lyx. I post my papers on arXiv (at no cost); there they are freely available, searchable, citable, and forever archived.


Can I ask for your Arxiv? I am near the end of my physics PhD and also near the end of my patience with the bureaucracy of academia. Just wondering what sort of research is possible independently



What branch of physics are you in?


I’m pursuing this route right now. Sure it has some downsides but like it’s insane how productive you can get when you actually devote 12 hrs a day to your research. A PhD student will have to go to meeting, teach classes, spend time commuting etc. I get 12 hrs a day of pure research.

That being said I’m far from wealthy.


Has anyone here published in a journal independently of a large company or a university/research institution? I cannot think of any papers I have read that are attributed as such. I have been doing a bunch of independent research in some areas in signal processing that I have only recently started thinking about writing up, and I was wondering how realistic that is. It has been a long time since I published anything in a journal.

Also since I started working on this, I realize just how nice it was in university to be able to click a link to an IEEE paper and skim it. I feel lucky to work so close to a large university library, but I see why people are so drawn to SciHub.


Here's a good example of influential paper published outside of academia by a company which was really small at the time: http://www.onboard.jetbrains.com/is1/articles/04/10/lop/mps....

It has a plenty of citations: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?cites=1113313642009476352...

It all resulted in an innovative product: https://www.jetbrains.com/mps/


Doesn't hurt that he has a graduate degree in Mathematics, so he's already credentialed for research.


I often recommend to young people just out of college that if they want to do serious intellectual work, their path ought to be:

1. Get a finance job on Wall Street.

2. Spend a few years saving up a decent nest egg of a couple million dollars.

3. Retire to the country side and start doing your intellectual work.


This is not as easy as it sounds. If it was, everyone would do it. A finance job on wall street does not guarantee you will become a millionaire in a few years. I worked for a few years in the finance department of a Wall St company and made decent money, even above average for someone out of college with a bachelor's (still not great for NYC), but if you want to make the millions you have to get with a very close-knit crowd of the dealers/brokers/market makers who are not open to letting in new people easily. And given the scandals and fraud which we read about in the news regularly, I can deduce at least one reason why. Just my n=1 but I knew a significant number of people who worked with me, even ones who were closer to the higher ups who still ended up with a nice but not extraordinary salary


This is a fantastic path if you're able to do it. Most people have difficulty with steps #1 and #2 though.

I still think the story of D.E. Shaw is pretty amusing. He got denied tenure at Columbia, so he started his own hedge fund, made billions, and then started his own research program doing what he really wanted to do in the first place.


What if step one is a nonstarter? Wall street is not exactly a friendly environment for science types. And even if you manage to get a job like that, you're spending your time just making money for the sake of making money for some future of science. What if you never make it that far? Then you spent your life of Wall Street. If that's what you want, more power to you, but for a scientist that would be a sad way to ho.


Pretty much my plan, except I'm not going to work in finance and it's going to take more than a few years... All I need, really, is enough to pay my mortgage for a few years.


The discipline of research seems - historically - to be equal parts social maneuvering and scientific rigor.

Just look at the very public spat between Ian Goodfellow and Jurgen Schmidhuber about Generative Networks to get a flavor for that.

Chomsky has perpetually raised the flag when his research won't get published because he's a vocal critic of some institutional priority.

Even back to Einstein, Kant etc... in multiple fields the powers at be thought these guys were cranks until they blew everything open. If you can't get a consortium of your peers in research to even take the time to read your work, then you won't be able to make any changes.

As with all things, Institutional association (as long as it's the right institution) serve as the social proof that you're doing real important work.

It's unfortunate, and I wish it weren't the case, but it seems to be intractable.


Here are a couple of well-known independent physics researchers:

Julian Barbour: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Barbour

Garrett Lisi: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antony_Garrett_Lisi

Lisi runs an informal hostel for physics collaboration at his home in Hawaii:

http://www.pacificscienceinstitute.org/


Perhaps part of the issue with people keeping silent about their private research is the world today is full of very vocal quacks and cranks. The last thing you want is to be taken for a crackpot.



Oldie but goodie.

Jokes aside, lacking significant result, there's no big incentive to publish filler and "Towards.." type papers if you do something as a hobby. If one does feel so inclined, it's definitely inching towards crackpot territory. Very likely countless amateur projects quietly start and die every year without making a peep.


I don't see much discussion on how these people are able to collaborate on projects with others? For a lot of research, you need partners to check each other's work, to bounce ideas off, to stop you from making stupid mistakes or help when you get stuck. This is why in academia people work within research groups.

Is is possible to create research groups while working as an independent researcher?


I think independent researchers - at least in the CS context - end up organically collaborating online through the content they share in github, blogposts, etc. Maybe there is some space for a more structured community of independent researchers which help each other and collaborate, but then again, isn't structure that indie researchers are trying to avoid?


(shameless plug) perhaps we can gather some ideas here? https://github.com/gpestana/brain-dump/issues/2 :)


I want to do independent (computational) research. That's pretty much the only thing I want to do. Not employment in industry, not teaching, not funding agency research (where the agency wants you to do only a restricted form of research; okay maybe I could do that but then funding is hard to come by). But independent research. And I don't care about money (as long as I can live on it, and have access to computational resources).

But I don't know how I can make time for it. I worked for a while, saved up some money, then did my own research using that money for a few months. But working to raise money is very distracting.


Part time job? Work 4 hours a day or 3-4 day a week. Programmers salaries are such that it is possible. The key is to watch time at work religiously and ensure you actually work agreed upon time and not more. It works, but you have to be consistent.

I have seen people doing this. Not with research, but with hobbies, teaching, religion or family. If it is possible with these, then it will work with research too.


> work religiously ...

that's my problem with part time work. If I have to spend even two or three hours on something not related to the research I really want to do, the rest of the day is ruined.

I'm the kind of person, who does well by dedicating solid chunks of time day in and day out on one topic, with the only distractions being eating, sleeping, and going to the restroom.

However if that part time work involves me showing up and just being there, or following mindless instructions (like burger flipping, or moving containers from one place to another) then as long as I'm not physically tired, and I can go back and do research for the rest of that day. But I doubt part time menial work would raise enough money to pay the bills.


Then work 3-4 days and dedicate 1-2 to research and you still have weekend.

I did not meant burger flipping. Burger flipping does not pay enough. I meant programming or other well paid job where you have good negotiating position.

By "work religiously" was padt of semtemce that meant to watch time. Don't stay longer "just this one time".


Work as an independent contractor. Get a small project, spend a few days or weeks completing it. Work on your research for a few weeks. Rinse and repeat.


The article doesn't mention one very important expense for nearly every research field: getting access to the research other people have published. Some fields (e.g. computational linguistics) have long had a policy of letting authors keep copyright, so they can post their own papers online, and the collections are also free; but the norm is that nearly all publication goes through publishers that paywall. So just to see what everybody else has been doing, you need to have institutional support.

Only slightly less important is access to conferences, which are not always super cheap: travel + lodging + registration is often in the $1000 range even for the relatively accessible conferences.


Fortunately: https://sci-hub.tw/

Yes, technically it's copyright violation, but if you ask any of the actual authors, or any human being with any _legitimate_ interest in the papers therein, they will encourage you to go for it.



I do Computing Education research, so being able to access learners is actually a necessary part. I guess it'd be possible to do this externally, but it's so hard to roll out new ed tech without quick access to an audience. But more importantly, I feel like I'd be very misguided if I didn't interact with students and understand actual classroom needs.


I left academia (in the humanities) to pursue work in tech. Most of this rings true. My experience is that a.) a lot of exciting work is invisible to academia and b.) to wing it without an institution is certainly a question of money but primarily of time and focus (disciplines and research projects will obviously vary on this front).


What would a platform for independent researchers (or potential collaborators!) look like?


A simple forum running something like phpBB would probably be the minimum viable product. Make many different categories and see what people want to discuss and what other features they want.

I'm a PhD student who's interested in going independent eventually, and I've discussed this with several people. My impression is that most people would be interested in discussing funding and historical examples of independent researchers (particularly how they funded themselves). Discussion of how to improve research and/or academia also seems popular. So perhaps the forum part could focus on topics like those initially.

Later, however, as the platform ages, more important new features of the platform would emerge.


A forum would definitely be core functionality. I've also been curious about the merits of anonymous publishing?


To me, publishing seems outside of the minimum viable product. I would like to see many changes to publishing, but I think those would be best handled later when independent research is better established.

Publishing is a chicken or egg type problem. At the moment few will use your publishing venue unless it has a certain reputation. But you can't develop a reputation unless your publishing venue is used often.

A publishing venue could be differentiated with unique features, e.g., open access, anonymous publishing option, more rigorous peer review, or more favorable copyright terms (I'm in favor of authors keeping copyright and just licensing the paper), for example. I'm not certain if these features would be enough to overcome the reputation disadvantage.

Perhaps independent researchers should forget about people who care so much about reputation (who probably wouldn't go independent anyway) and instead focus on making a better product.


I think this is actually a really great point about making a better product. One could venture to ask: is the reputation system within the scientific institution intimately linked the notion of natural truth? If so, does focusing on approaching science from the lens of product development signify a shift in the notion of what science is about?

I'm a PhD student in math currently and I often wonder what the difference really is between the creation and discovery of mathematical ideas. It seems the difference is really a matter of perspective: are we trying to discover something true or create something useful? Often these two perspectives intersect.


I don't think academics are incentived to publish truth in general. In my field (fluid dynamics), researchers seem to focus on producing as many papers as possible that sound good but may have problems beneath the surface. This may be different in math, because the standards are much higher.

The distinction between whether science or math creates or discovers truths is philosophical and not something I'm that interested in.

My goal is to publish papers as likely to be true or useful as possible. So thinking about this in terms of "product development" is really just about increasing the chance of discovering the truth. (Or developing a useful model, which may not be strictly true but is a good approximation of the truth. As an engineer, what I do is more likely to be in the latter category.)


There's viXra - the reverse arXiv - to publish your work, if you do not have credentials to get on the forward arXiv:

http://viXra.org


Great article--couldn't agree more.

Also don't forget Michael Faraday, a bookbinder's apprentice who managed to figure out much of electromagnetism, among other things.


Does Y Combinator fund (independent or not) research projects?


You mean https://ycr.org/ ?


Kind of -- if I am a researcher and I see a business application, but for which I would need to go independent but due to the uncertainty of viability continue my research and still be involved in my peer group in academics, is it possible to receive funding and return to my lab?


The ancient Greeks had a society where they could afford to have people who did nothing other than open ended thinking. Sometimes I use some maths that was worked out then and I am appreciative of standing on the shoulders of such ancestral giants. A true measure of a society includes whether such a society affords people who are given the time and space just to think.

I find it amazing that in today's world there are employers willing to pay for likewise. It is quite a privilege to be in such a job where you are given some type of giant Lego set and there are no set goals as to what you come up with. In such jobs you really can be 'of independent means' and not subject to the rules that govern how a lot of people work, to value every moment and not be clock-watching until 5.30 p.m.

I follow quite a few people that work in tech and they don't seem to be restricted to boring rules but able to pursue their passion. There are no tax scams for companies to hire such people or other fiddles.

The Greeks may have had slaves and afforded their thinkers their own special way, today we have companies that can afford thinkers in their own special way. It is not just at Google where moonshots happen and neither is it just the Google-me-toos that do this (Facebook). Even small companies have people that are hired just to come up with stuff.

In previous times, before the 'modern' company, patronage was different and there were ways and means. Obviously class hierarchy helped but that was not all of it. Ultimately Darwin went off sailing with the Royal Navy and most of his work built on the work others had done regarding livestock breeding - the modern horse/cow/pig was 'invented' then. He may have inherited wealth but his work was very much about what mattered to society at the time.

How much really comes out of academia? Do 99% of thesis efforts end up collecting dust to never be read? For the author to get those letters after their name and expect the world to roll out the red carpet for them? This happens, further education is a business. There are plenty in further education who think about themselves and their status anxiety rather than society on some bigger/deeper level.

It has always been a two way street, no matter what the era is you also need people who can do the 1% inspiration/imagination and do the 99% perspiration. Luckily there are people, maybe few and far between, that can excel at that. Ultimately these people really are 'independent researchers' and they will do whatever it is whether they have a patron or an inheritance.

Then there are the wannabees that will insist on getting funding before they lift up a pen. Sometimes this is an excuse, how many investigations have not happened because there is no funding yet in reality all that is needed is for someone to put time into quietly studying the facts?

A comical (well not really) instance of this was after 9/11 when the people doing the 'investigation' said they were 'setup to fail' because they did not have the funding to do a full investigation. These people being those pork-barrel fed politicians who can't wipe their own arses unless they get funding for it.

Once I met a lovely lady on a train who worked for some think tank. Fascinated I asked about what it was really like working for this highly respected group. Apart from the guy who founded it and spent all his time telling people how to live on TV there was no 'research' going on. They just fund raised and paid for their salaries in some pyramid scheme of research. It was most disappointing to find out about.

Tinkering in your shed may not be 'independent research' there needs to be some wider society connection even if research is done in near isolation and with nobody knowing about it yet. Sometimes you need a whole new generation to come along to appreciate the new thinking. Darwin had this problem as did that Galileo chap.


Amusing that this type of person goes unnoticed when many of us tell people what we do. I fall into this category as I was describing in another thread. What she misses is many of us aren’t rich or the work sustainable: many people in lower to middle classes sacrificing money or status to do deep research and development in a field that interests them and/or they find necessary. They might also not like the priorities of commercial or government funding groups.

For instance, I thought figuring out how to make computers that don’t fail or get hacked was a thing we desperately needed. I believed both livelihoods and lives were at stake. That we had access to them was a social good that neither the markets nor FOSS were really serving. It was also an interesting, deep, rabbit hole of a problem crossing many sub-fields of IT, economics, and psychology. That she misses people without money doing it altruistically surprises me more given she wrote the report on FOSS developers working with little to no money or contributions on critical stuff that mattered to them. Same kind of thing I think with different work output.

Still a good write-up that will draw attention to the concept. We might get more people doing it or publishing what they’re doing. I think most of us don’t publish enough. We should accept some of the troubles of that since the ideas get out there more. I also like this quote focusing on the obsessive nature of deep, independent research:

“I understand, then, why researchers flock to the safety of institutions. Imagine studying something that nobody else is studying, for reasons you can’t really articulate, without knowing what the outcome of your work will be. For the truly obsessed person, the need for validation isn’t about ego; it’s about sanity. You want to know there’s some meaning behind the dizzying mental labyrinth that you simultaneously can’t escape and also never want to leave.”

Edit: I also noted it gets even lower-end in response to a comment elsewhere saying you just need money to live and basic, computing equipment. That's true but maybe not what people picture.

"Even lower barrier than that: many bright folks that were hackers or makers that I met in rural areas were on food stamps or living with someone unemployed without a car. They could usually get a Wifi-enabled phone or old laptop that they could use at nearby McDonalds or something. Many use data plans, too, just cuz cell service is a necessity to them. At one point, I went lower having no PC, phone, or car. Designed on paper or dirt depending on where we were at.

The reading and practicing like you said is what gave us skill. I think peer review and support is just as important, though. I had lots of it once I got online. There’s quite a few people out there probably stuck on some subjects, reinventing wheels, or chasing dead ends just because they can’t talk to experienced people."


With low federal funding rates and every CS Department having doubled in size it is barely possible to do research IN academia. You spend nearly most of your time writing grants that don’t get funded. The little federal funding that is available ends up mostly at elite/ivy schools who dominate NSF panels and conference program committees :-( kudos if you can do independent research outside of it though




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