Spesh To’ics Week 3; Confronted by volume

Well this week has been a week of procrastination for me. No greatly detailed research for Special Topics has taken place. Actually most weeks are procrasto-weeks for me, in reality. Maybe that has some benefit, but maybe that’s a different subject than the one I should be writing about! I think my ‘dinosaur brain’ (a term I’m told my sister’s boss uses.. I can’t find any references to it on the web, but I do like it!) has been working away in the background though, and is bearing some fruit.

I’m confounded by the complexity and depth of knowledge in general. It’s one of those things that when observed from a macro level is as tantalising as it is terrifying. I guess this is something that I’ll have to consolidate into my thinking and accept, particularly given my chosen area of research, which I suppose you can broadly just define as ‘the academic method’ (something that I do believe to be something of a nonsense, in the same way I believe the ‘scientific method’ is a tad nonsensical).

My reflective nugget for today is: reading is good. But also that not reading is good. I’m not sure if this is a general thing in certain ‘types’ of person, or if it is something that’s quite localised to myself. I’m pretty good at gobbling up a large volume of information all at once, but only if it is delivered in more aural or visual ways. Textual information I find hard to digest quickly. For academic purposes this is a problem, because the point of the academic study I’m currently embarked upon is to discover new things, to be innovative, to ‘create’ knowledge or wisdom. So being able to consume knowledge conveyed in lectures, videos, sound bites is one thing… but the vast majority of the knowledge that I need is trapped up inside PDFs. Not only that, but PDFs that have to be teased out of their (oh so large, and generally – in my experience – devoid of any usability for fledgling researchers like me) repositories and (if your eyes are anything like mine) generally printed on copious amounts of oh-so-cheap but oh-so-expensive paper (not to mention oh-so-easy-to-run-out toner, print credit or inkjet cartridges).

I’m finding some incredibly intriguing stuff though.

Patrick pointed me in the direction of Eugene Garfield – founder of the Institute for Scientific information. Some of Garfields early work describing the indexes he had set up, how to develop them, and how they might develop in the future (starting in the 1950s) seem to touch upon some of my own concerns with the established norms that exist today. This is something of an uncomfortable discovery: the thought that went into Garfield’s early work has not meant that we’re doing things any ‘better’. We’re just doing it on a much larger scale, and much quicker, but for my mind almost exactly the same processes are taking place, and I don’t like them!

A couple of notes from what I’ve been reading this evening. In Citation Indexes for Science (1983) Garfield says:

“… then in the future every author ought to be required to include the serial number of each item he referred to, so as to facilitate not only the compilation of citation indexes but also other operations such as requests for reprints”

Does this happen? Maybe a bit, but not in the most ‘usable’ way, not when compared to proper linked data. In my mind we could apply some wiki principles to how that could take place.. I’ve procured my friend Cormac’s thesis (Edit this space: participation and expansive learning in developing Wikiversity) to see if I can find some synergy with that.

From the same paper Garfield noted:

It also becomes quite obvious that many references to Selye’s paper were general and contribute little or nothing to the readers’ enlightenment…

A practice that is pervasive, still. And indeed something I can confess to having done myself, and I have been told is normal, and, something that I’ve been advised to do by academics in order to play the gameNow if there’s a game, intend on playing it as well as I can.. however going ahead willfully in a manner that involves doing things wrong on purpose seems ridiculous. There’s an obvious need, value, and dependency on citing earlier work. In the preface to another paper that Garfield contributed to Joshua Lederberg of Stanford University mentions that “A cumulative index to all of science would, of course, be a large undertaking but of course no larger than the problem to which it is addressed.” In the actual paper that was being prefaced in the previous quote, the writers concede that “For economic and editorial reasons [trying to make a comprehensive index] was not practical in these experiments“.

Oh, and here’s a photo of Eugene Garfield! (hot linked, I hope that that doesn’t contravene copyright – does it? – and also that the link stays up!)


It’s starting to become clear to me that this topic that I’m studying isn’t at all new. In fact, in spite of the contemporary abundance of computing power, appetite for open information, and ever-growing number of journals, articles, conferences, and scholars.. we’ve far from fixed the problem, or changed the nature of it. Rather it has grown exponentially, and somehow persists. The Observer reported last week that the Council for the Defense of British Universities published an open letter to government positing that the intention to make all publicly funded research freely is “attack on academic freedoms”. Now I don’t want to immediately disagree for David Attenborough, David Starkey, Richard Dawkins or Alan Bennett. But I think they’re shortsighted. I hope the government are not.