Category Archives: Knowledge & Content

Are we at the limits of science?

Scientific productivity is paramount in an academic economy that tries to hold on to the best, and where the best are trying to hold on. But as this interesting article discusses, we might put the wrong measures to it.

With the application of industrial criteria to science, we may have reached the limits of research in more than one way. In every economic domain, upscaling eventually reaches a ceiling where no further growth is possible without cheats, compromises, or loss in quality. Apart from outright fraudulent manipulation of the scientific publishing mechanisms and the lack of objective possibilities to replicate claimed research results, both of which are mentioned in the article, there are other issues that begin to shape up into a kind of scientific sound barrier ahead of us that increasingly separates us from the search for new knowledge to the benefit of humanity:

  • Productivity pressures that quantify research output in citations and impact measures, at some scaling point leads to “work-arounds” as scholars can no longer meet or maintain expectations. Just like with “backlink” trading in web SEO, similar new spin-off models for increasing impact factors spring into life. At the same time, industrial expectations anticipating “a paper submission per week” have to compromise on quality.

  • The run for money, i.e. research funding, becomes more important than the quest for knowledge. As long as there is only a handful of institutions searching for funding, this may be (a) easy and (b) successful. As soon as it is mandated and scaled up as a public objective to relieve budgets, a third money stream economy becomes increasingly harder and requires higher pre-investment. This can already be seen in EU funding rounds, where the number of applications has dramatically increased, leading to a much reduced chance of success for competitors. It already leaves many smaller institutions out in the cold. The same thing is true looking at industry sponsorship, making every institution go knocking at company doors for donations or private funding is like having not only one needy hand stretched out, but hundreds!

  • Similar resource limits are encountered when looking at empirical research. It has become a real challenge to find participants for pilots, surveys, evaluations, etc. People are over-surveyed and over-evaluated. Having one survey a month, was still o.k., but with pilots, tests, and questionnaires becoming a daily diet, this approach turns itself on its head. Scientifically, it leads to the risk of low participation or low quality returns with less scientific relevance. Alternatively, as is often the case, students are forcefully pushed into the role of a lab rat, but with the number of tests and pilots their entire education runs into danger of becoming an experiment.

  • Peer review, originally conceived as a measure for scientific quality, also suffers from the scaling issue. Doing a peer review on one reputable journal or conference now and then, was superbly rewarding and honorable to be involved in. But with the growth in publication outlets, the requests for reviewers’ unpaid time have also grown beyond proportion. This again leads to poor engagement with the task.

The paradox with all this is that the more organisations try to quantify and control these issues, the more they are failing. Scientific half-life is shortened not only by the speed by which new knowledge is created, but also by the amount of invalidity contained in it. Do we have a bubble that is about to burst?

The dilemma of academic publishing

The debate over publishing academic articles with “established” commercial journals has been raging for a while now. We see the ground shifting from under the feet of these publishers, and concessions to the Open Access movement won’t save them in the long run. The services that publishers previously provided (lectoring, editorial, layout, promotion, distribution) have all disappeared, authors do everything themselves nowadays, publishers just hold out their hands.

At the same time, we see institutions and the education establishment counting beans and pressurising researchers for  output via these traditional channels. It’s about time for that to change, as it is only working into the hands of publishing houses, not helping researchers.

To me, the point of academic publishing is the sharing of new insights, discoveries and reflections with the scholarly Community of Practice to open them up for further work. As such, I prefer the idea of peer recognition as a quality criterion over that of a quantitative inventory of writings for specialist journals that end up on a library shelf of a few institutions with enough interest to shed out large sums of money for a subscription. Gravitas in the community is what matters to me as a researcher and lecturer, and this should be provided by kin people not via people with a commercial interest.

When I take my rather modest weblog reflections, I cannot help but notice that in terms of reach this has probably more impact than any journal article I’d produce. Posts are immediately out for grabs, they invite and receive feedback (hence are peer reviewed), they reach the target community swiftly and without barriers. Compare this with the journal articles that follow a mechanical process, spamming people’s inbox with requests for peer reviews for no pay and, in the end, leading to a librarian buying the (e)-publication in the hope that some lonely PhD student will find it on the shelf some day and use it for a short quote in their thesis.

Let’s face it, we all dream of discovering another Pyramid or some such world wonder that would make a dramatic change. But, in today’s reality, new knowledge is created in collective efforts through discussion and sharing – and this can hardly happen in the way things were.

Antique books for everyone

… well, as long as you have an iPad, this is for you!

british library icon

When talking about open educational resources (OER), this is a superb example: The British Library just started to open their 19th century collection to the public. This is a nice iPad app that allows you to browse the collection and to freely download facsimile books for offline reading. These digitised versions will not catch dust and you can carry an entire library in your bag!

OERs and the University

I just returned from an expert workshop on Open Educational Resources (OER) in Graz, Austria. Gráinne Conole, Sandra Schön, and I gave the keynote presentations. The event explored the changing landscape that OERs are now facing. After 10 years of open course ware, we are now faced with a multitude of concepts entitled ‘open’ something or other, which leads to some confusion among universities and stakeholders.

Opening of OER expert meeting

Openness means different things, and poses substantial challenges to the education system and to publicly funded institutions. The biggest of these perhaps is the increasingly dichotomous internal struggle faced by institutions where HEIs are expected to be open, transparent, and accessible, and at the same time requires them to be protective of their constituency and engage in competitive battles with peer institutions, private education providers, and the wider economy at large.

The question arises, whether the concepts of a highly competitive global knowledge economy and those of global openness are mutually exclusive or whether institutions can balance these in their favour and for the benefit of wider society.

In my keynote, I highlighted some of the issues that lie beneath the surface, leading to tensions in and around the education system in its quest to move from subsistence to sustainability. I also touched upon the search for business models that are compatible with the demands put to institutions and that can perhaps secure their longer term future. My presentation slides are available on slideshare.