I have seen a public video on youtube where Elon Musk gave his opinion about academic publications: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uA_2v0d9Gzs

He stated that most academic publications are pretty much useless and no one ever reads them.

I personally relate to his point of view and understand that he was not generalizing to all research produced, but at the same time he has a valid good point.

Is Musk correct in his assessment?

Do you feel that your research is having/will have some impact in the world?

If according to some metric (to be defined) most of academic papers are useless and that nobody will ever care of your published work, then what is the point of wasting the best time of your life by pursuing an academic career where the chances of getting a permanent position are very slim?

  • 2
    Sorry, but I'm voting to close as opinion-based. Also, to classify a paper's usefulness, don't you have to read it first? So his statement that all papers are useless and no one reads them seems contradictory.
    – astronat
    Apr 20 at 15:39
  • 2
    "What is your opinion in this regard" -- note that we do not allow answers that are only opinions or survey responses; we require answers to be based on references or specific personal expertise. You may be able to rephrase to "focus on a more fact-based line of questioning" -- for more details, see here.
    – cag51
    Apr 20 at 15:50
  • 11
    There is a famous anecdote about a big CEO. He was told that only 10% of marketing and advertisement investment were actually effective. So he told his marketing director to cut the 90%. "Well", said the marketing director, "the problem is, we do not know which 10% to keep." And so is science. [This was supposed to become an answer, but the question was closed while I was writing. I threw away 3/4 of my response - quite annoying.] Apr 20 at 15:55
  • 3
    Even if no one reads your publications, it does not mean they are "useless". You still can use them in your CV and for grant applications.
    – sleepy
    Apr 20 at 17:03
  • 3
    I changed the question to make it less "opinion" based. I didn't vote to close it and I have no power to block anyone from anything. In fact, I voted to reopen it. You are free, of course, to roll back my change if you object to it.
    – Buffy
    Apr 20 at 20:03

Well, for starters, Musk is just trolling. I think he does that often enough that people should recognize it for what it is. The statement has a bit of truth and if you exaggerate it enough you get to his statement.

A more accurate portrayal is that most academic publications have a very small audience. Not all, but most. The audience is other specialists in that sub field to which the paper applies. The paper might be very significant to half a dozen people worldwide, but of little interest elsewhere.

Some papers, on the other hand, have a lot of influence. And some of the lesser papers are what eventually enable the big ones.

The publication of his ideas on the Calculus by Leibniz were pretty important and have had a huge impact, and not just on math. Einstein's work has also had a big influence.

If you were to create a graph of the importance of papers vs their numbers, I think it would be pretty skewed. But that is irrelevant if it is the small steps, accumulated over time, that make the big steps possible.

So the "useless" is an exaggeration. And the "nobody" is an exaggeration. The result is just a troll. Smile and enjoy the workmanship of Elon the Showman. But don't neglect your research.

And none of Musk's business ventures would be worth anything without the research that led to the technology they use.

That said, at the moment, it is a pretty poor marketplace for academics. A lot of that is political with too little consideration given to the long term importance of education generally. And, of course, to survive in any competitive environment you have to work hard and get results. If you don't love research and the field you work in, then do something else. The rewards aren't financial for most of us.

To add a personal note. My doctoral dissertation (classical real analysis) was incredibly esoteric, though quite nice in its way. I predicted at the time that no one would ever find a practical use for it. I was wrong, though it took ten years or more before someone found an application. My later work in CS had more of an immediate impact.

And, my gateway into academia wasn't easy to pass through. I graduated at a time when no one wanted to hire mathematicians, since there was a glut due to the race to the moon. My trajectory would have been entirely different had I finished three years earlier. But, life is good. I'm not sorry that I stuck it out.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.