Jul 18, 2012

Rick’s Ramblings: The Academic Software Razzies

Each year in Los Angeles, on the night before the Oscars ceremony, the Golden Raspberry Awards—“Razzies”—are awarded to the worst of what Hollywood has to offer that year. In 2011, Adam Sandler swept the awards for his movie Jack and Jill. In this column, I will award similar accolades for the software that we have to deal with every day. Late in the last century, I joked that having a computer gives you more time—to spend working on your computer. As our universities have embraced the paperless concept (i.e., giving us more of their work to do), we spend an increasing number of hours each week on menial chores, often dealing with software that is terrible to use. So I hereby offer my “top” six list.

6: Fastlane

When it first appeared, it was Nightmare on Elm Street. Using a word taken from Michelle Wie’s tweet after she shot 12 over par to miss the cut in a recent tournament, Fastlane was s@$t. Is this the way a Stanford graduate talks (and spells)? Deborah Lockhart at NSF had a more genteel way of saying it: “Fastlane isn’t.” That was then. Now, after years of improvements, Fastlane has become “the Devil you know.” Yes, it can still crash on the day your proposal is due, or complain to you that the Project Description for your FRG proposal is more than 15 pages (20 are allowed), but on the whole it works well.

5: Blackboard/Sakai

I do like the fact that these programs allow you to make course materials easily available to students without violating copyright law, and they allow students to keep track of their grades. However, these programs are clunky to use, and it is annoying to have to start all over again when your university changes systems. The biggest headache for me is that if you want to export the grades to Excel to update them or compute final grades, then Excel complains about the weird format when it opens or saves the file.

4: Journal submission sites

No, I am not going to complain about EJMS, though it would be nice if our electronic journals didn’t roll their own homegrown system. Filling in the author information page at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for my recent eight-author paper was a nightmare. The most mysterious aspect was assigning “roles” to the co-authors. Yes, you can create your own names for roles for co-authors, but if you do this then they must have one of the ones from the generic list. When you get this wrong you don’t get a comprehensible error message, but after a while you realize that some of the author’s names are surrounded with a light red box.

I guess it serves me right for submitting a paper to the Journal of Theoretical Biology (an Elsevier journal) but their site is a very strict disciplinarian. You WILL submit names of three to five referees, and pick an associate editor to handle the paper, or you cannot submit the paper. In addition, they have this new requirement that you have to supply between three and five highlights that express the main points of your paper in at most 84 characters including spaces. Take a moment later and see what that would look like for your latest paper. For some reason they complained about my “tastes great, less filling, and low in cholesterol.”

3: ApplyYourself/CollegeNet

To quote Wikipedia, “As the world’s most widely used online application system, Hobson’s ApplyYourself provides over 700 universities in the US and UK with a powerful solution that streamlines and optimizes the admissions process.” Optimizes for the universities, but not for the poor slobs who have to upload their information. Inside the site, the questions you see depend on the university who asked them to create it. However, in some cases you are asked to rate the candidate on up to 12 of their abilities. I guess it is the Match.com of graduate school applications.

CollegeNET remembers your login name and expects you to remember the password you created two years ago. When you log in, it shows a list of the current people and schools for whom you have written, or will soon write, but when you open the recommendation form, you have to input your address and contact information every time. The main trouble with all of these sites is that if I am writing a letter for an undergraduate who is applying to nine different schools, I have to go log in nine times. Most sites are not happy to just let you attach your letter and get on with your life. They want you to fill answers to a number of different questions in their little boxes. If you are also bugged by this, then note that while you can’t leave a box blank, the program will be happy as a clam if you put in a single period.

While these generic sites may be annoying, they are better than some of the homegrown sites. Stanford asks how many undergraduates have you worked with in your career. It refuses to accept the answer, “More than Jerry Sandusky”… but you can keep typing 9’s until you have filled up the space. Though it is out of place here to say something nice, I like the MIT site. It is simple, doesn’t ask for a lot of chitchat and has categories like “Top 10%, top 25%, top 50%” for you to rank the student. I admit I indulge in grade inflation as much as anyone else, but have you ever really thought about what it means to rate someone in the top 1% of all of your math majors who have gone to graduate school? I remember a time at UCLA when Tom Liggett and Charles Stone were looking at a letter from their adviser Sam Karlin who rated a PhD student applying for a postdoc in the top 5% of his 40 students, and they were debating who had been knocked out of the top two.

2: eRa Commons

The first sign of trouble is that it takes four to ten times to find a legitimate password. Once inside the system, it is difficult to navigate. Recently I had to upload a recommendation for a former student who is applying for a fellowship. The link in her email took me to the generic login page and from there I couldn’t figure out where to go. After visiting the FAQ and following links I finally found the right place to upload my letter. My sons who grew up playing video games would undoubtedly have less trouble; it may remind them of tricks they needed in Quake to find the BFGun and extra med kits.

I recently had to submit the report for my NSF/NIGMS grant which was awarded by NIH. I was already a little stressed due to the fact that, being two weeks past the deadline, I got an email that said get your report in now or face a one year vacation from funding. It took me a while to find the eSNAP link for my proposal, and when I pushed it I got a cryptic error message accompanied by a five digit number. I explained the situation to the folks at the email “help” desk and they told me I was trying to upload a graphic that was more than 6MB.

The problem (I think) with my report is that Duke has been chosen as one of the universities to test the new Research Performance Progress Report (RPPR) system. The system helps by telling you that, based on your grant type, you don’t have to report anything in this category. However, when you click on “Nothing to Report” for that section, it tells you that all of your work on the page will be lost, when it only means that the contents of the current section will be eliminated.

Like many other programs it will ask you Are sure you want to leave this page? even if you have just saved and not typed anything. Like Aesop’s shepherd boy, after it cries wolf too many times, you stop listening.

And you lose your work.

And the Winner is…

1 Peoplesoft

Peoplesoft came to town when I was at Cornell. For the administrators there, it was a no-brainer: David Duffield, the company founder and 1962 graduate in EE, ponied up tens of millions of dollars to build the nanotechnology building that bears his name. One of the consequences of the switch was that we had to change our course numbering because the program expected four digit numbers and couldn’t cope with leading zeros.

There are many horror stories I could tell about how this system works, but to keep this short, I will only give you two. At Duke, we use it for undergraduate advising. If one is sitting there with the student’s record open and want to click on the link that makes them eligible to enroll, then the software says you are not allowed to do that at this time, which is a lie. In reality what you must do is to go back to the index screen and click on the button by their picture there. A similar but funnier bug applies to assigning grades. If you go into the page where you can access your course roster, and click on the icon for the grade list, then you are told that you do not have permission to access the grade roster. What they should be saying is that it is too soon to be uploading grades for this course.

Oh well, ours is only a small market where a few companies are making hundreds of millions of dollars unloading rubbish on unsuspecting universities. None of these programs has resulted in as much lost productivity as the worst computer virus in history, the Windows operating system. Mr. Gates, I appreciate the money you have spent trying to eradicate diseases around the world, but if you really want to end suffering…

What’s your least favourite academic software? Award your own Razzies: make a comment!

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