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Creating knowledge

Arthur-Pyle_The_Enchanter_MerlinEvery scholar is part wizard, part muggle.

As wizards, scholars are lone geniuses in search of original insight. They question everything. They ignore conventional wisdom and tradition. They experiment.

As muggles, scholars are subject to the normal rules of power and influence. They are limited by common sense and group think. They are ambitious. They promote and market their ideas. They have the perfect elevator pitch ready for every potential funder of research. They connect their research to hot fields. They climb the social ladder in professional societies. As muggles, they know that the lone voice is probably wrong.

The sad fate of the wizards is that their discoveries, no matter how significant, are not knowledge until accepted by the muggles.

Einstein stood on the shoulder of giants: he needed all of the science that preceded him. First, he needed it to develop special relativity theory. Then, he needed it as a starting point from where to lead the physics community on an intellectual journey. Without that base of prior shared knowledge, they would not have followed.

As a social construct, knowledge moves at a speed limited by the wisdom of the crowd. The real process by which scholarly research moves from the world of the wizard into the world of muggles is murky, complicated, longwinded, and ambiguous. Despising these properties, muggles created a clear and straightforward substitute: the peer-review process.

When only a small number of distinguished scholarly bodies published journals, publishing signaled that the research was widely accepted as valid and important. Today, thousands of scholarly groups and commercial entities publish as many as 28,000 scholarly journals, and publishing no longer functions as a serious proxy for wide acceptance.

Most journals are created when some researchers believe established journals ignore or do not sufficiently support a new field of inquiry. New journals give new fields the time and space to grow and to prove themselves. They also reduce the size of the referee pool. They avoid generalists critical of the new field. Gradually, peer review becomes a process in which likeminded colleagues distribute stamps of approval to each other.

Publishers thrive by amplifying scholarly fractures and by creating scholarly islands. As discussed in previous blog posts, normal free-market principles do not apply to the scholarly-journal market. [What if Libraries were the Problem] Without an effective method to kill off journals, their number and size keep increasing. Unfortunately, the damage to universities and to scholarship far exceeds the cost of journals.

Niche fields use their success in the scholarly-communication market to acquire departmental status, making the scholarly fracture permanent. The economic crisis may have stopped or reversed the trend of ever more specialized, smaller, university departments, but the increased cost structure inherited from the boom years lingers. Creating a new department should be an exceptional event. Universities went overboard, influenced and pressured by commercial interests.

As a quality-control system, the scholarly-communication system should be conservative and skeptical. As a communication system, it should give exposure to new ideas and give them a chance to develop. By simultaneously pursuing two contradictory goals, scholarly journals have become ineffective at both. They are too specialized to be credible validators. They are too slow and bureaucratic for growing new ideas.

Journals survive because universities use them for assessment. Not surprisingly, scholarly papers solidly reside in muggle world. Too many papers are written by Very Serious Intellectuals (VSIs) for VSIs. Too many papers are written in self-aggrandizing pompous prose, loaded with countless footnotes. Too many papers are written to flatter VSIs with too many irrelevant references. Too many papers are written to puff up a tidbit of incremental information. Too many papers are written. Too few papers detail negative results or offer serious critique, because that only makes enemies.

When given the opportunity, scholarly authors produce awe inspiring presentations. The edutainment universe of TED Talks may not be an appropriate forum for the daily grunt work of the scholar, but is it really too much to ask that the scholarly-communication system let the wizardry shine through?

Universities claim to be society’s engines of innovation. They have preached the virtues of creative destruction brought on by technological innovation. Yet, the wizards of the ivory tower resist minor change as much as the muggles of the world.

Open Access is catalyzing reform on the business side of the scholarly-communication system. Will Open Access be enough to push universities into experimentation on the scholarly side?

That is an Open question.


This January 26, 2015 article was re-posted from Eric Van de Velde’s SciTechSociety website at http://scitechsociety.blogspot.com/2015/01/creating-knowledge.html.

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