Diminishing returns to communication in scholarship?

By Razib Khan
Jan 28, 2013 11:38 AMMay 17, 2019 10:18 PM


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There has been an issue I have wanted to bring up, but my thoughts have been rather inchoate. If you read this blog closely it won't surprise you that in general my idealistic sympathies in regards to "access" of scientific publications are in line with Michael Eisen's. He (and others) do a good enough job in this area that I don't feel like I have much to add, aside from cheering, or noting an open access success now and then.

But a broader question and concern came to mind after an exchange with Patrick Wyman. In the furtherance of my aim to not get swallowed up by one disciplinary interest I've always maintained a robust reading program in areas like history, psychology, economics, etc. As a historian with a focus on late antiquity and the early medieval period I have crossed paths with Patrick Wyman, and he mentioned to me offhand how inaccessible some journals are (I have academic access, and I can't get to many history journals, one reason I read books), and, that he had to be circumspect about outlining his arguments on a particular point lest he be "scooped." That is, his idea might used by another scholar without attribution and then published (we were on Twitter).

And with that I had to wonder, is that the sort of situation which explains why humanistic scholarship has to be severely gated? Why does any humanistic scholarship have to be distributed in inaccessible journals in the first place? Many scholars bemoan the fact that their interests are on the radar of perhaps a few dozen fellow specialists, but perhaps one reason that this is so is that there are few incentives to disseminate the scholarship. And at the end of the day that's certainly one point of scholarship, above and beyond the individual moment of illumination at the uncovering of truth.

In antiquity there arose among intellectuals a culture of correspondence. This reemerged during the Renaissance and matured into the Republic of Letters. Today many scholars sit at terminals engaged in the process of correspondence at a much more furious pace than in the past. But is scholarship more relevant? Is it more well known?

Technological changes have been catalysts for a revolution in intellectual production the past. It seems possible that the ferment of the Axial Age was contingent upon the widespread literacy among elites which was enabled by the alphabet. A huge field of inquiry around the role of the printing press in stimulating changes in Europe has long existed. What has the internet done that is equivalent in a revolutionary sense? (I'm talking scientifically, not economically)

Are we living in an age of scholarly brilliance? Should we be? Are intellectuals sending emails of marginal utility at a faster and faster rate, saying less and less as their "information exchange" increases at an exponential pace? We live today in an age of affluence. If you wish to be an intellectual of modest ambition you require little to carve out a space of leisure. So what are we carving?

And just to clear, I don't think we are at the point of diminishing returns to scholarship. Rather, I think it seems we are because for whatever reason the new communication technology has not revolutionized the way scholarship is done as much as you'd have thought a few years ago.

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