Academic Mechanism Design

From game theory, there is a notion of “mechanism design”: setting up the structure of the world so that participants have some incentive to do sane things (rather than obviously counterproductive things). Application of this principle to academic research may be fruitful.

What is misdesigned about academic research?

  1. The JMLG guides give many hints.
  2. The common nature of bad reviewing also suggests the system isn’t working optimally.
  3. There are many ways to experimentally “cheat” in machine learning.
  4. Funding Prisoner’s Delimma. Good researchers often write grant proposals for funding rather than doing research. Since the pool of grant money is finite, this means that grant proposals are often rejected, implying that more must be written. This is essentially a “prisoner’s delimma”: anyone not writing grant proposals loses, but the entire process of doing research is slowed by distraction. If everyone wrote 1/2 as many grant proposals, roughly the same distribution of funding would occur, and time would be freed for more research.

Mechanism design is not that easy—many counterintuitive effects can occur. Academic mechanism design is particularly difficult problem because there are many details. Nevertheless, it may be worthwhile because it’s hard to underestimate the value of an improvement in the rate of useful research.

The good news is that not everything needs to be solved at once. For example, on the empirical side, if we setup an easy system allowing anyone to create challenges like KDDCup, we might achieve a better (i.e. less cheat-prone) understanding of what works and what does not.