Today we had a pretty heated discussion about publishing scientific work. Everyone pretty much had an opinion on this, including me.

The reason why everyone had an opinion on this was because publishing is an academic’s bread and butter. It is often the method in which performance is measured, when you’re a professional researcher. It has been said that it is because of this apparently objective measure that the quality of published works has degraded over the decades, either a paper was rubbish or the increment was too small, due to the “publish or perish” syndrome that academics catch.

Obviously I can’t attest to that, as I have only been a professional academic for a year. But my opinion is that (1) the proportion of quality publications has remained the same, but the publication rate is much higher now; (2) there are more people than ever in academia; (3) more data, information and knowledge is being generated than ever before; (4) the knowledge base is increasing faster than we can keep up; so (5) we could be entering a crisis period that Thomas Kuhn was talking about in his book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, before the paradigm shift occurs.

Search engines and digital libraries help in this regard, but I don’t think it is enough to be able to support the potential knowledge base that is out there. There are inherent limitations in current searches, for example, if you tried to search in free-form text (i.e. text with no metadata) for objects with a length between 1cm and 10cm, you will not be able to find what you were looking for, unless someone somewhere has already compiled such a specific list.

Making a computer understand the way that humans understand (a.k.a. artificial intelligence) was seen to be the the way forward in terms of handling the sheer volume of information available, but progress has been more difficult and slower than initially predicted, which is understandable – the more things we understand, the larger the space of what we need to understand becomes, thus the percentage of what we actually understand may become smaller.

I can’t even begin to think what the paradigm shift could be. Would it keep to the spirit of the scientific method, or will part of science change to a more humanities based research approach, where whole essays are written to cover the history and status quo (i.e. review articles), where objectivity disappears and opinions are written to matter?


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