What Is Research?

March 21, 2008

The dissemination of science

This is a somewhat unusual post for this blog. I typically use the What is Research? blog to describe issues related to my day-to-day study and to-be research life, and my own experiments. In this post, I’m going to talk about something broader that has, of late, been concerning me.

Recently, I’ve been reading The Future of Ideas and Code, Version 2, two fantastic books by Lawrence Lessig. Lawrence Lessig is the man who gave birth to the Creative Commons movement. The core idea of the Creative Commons is simple: authors and creators of original work get to specify exactly how they’re okay with their work being reused. For instance, an ”attribution-share like” license means that the author allows others to reuse the work and create derivatives, as long as all derivatives attribute the original work, and also have the same or a compatible license. There are no-derivative licenses (which forbid the creation of derivative works) and noncommercial licenses (which forbid commercial use).

Lessig was motivated to start the Creative Commons, roughly by concerns he had about big corporations pushing the government to extend the term of copyright. Copyright law in the United States currently gives the author’s descendants the copyright on the author’s work for 70 years. Just a few years ago, this number was 50 years: the increase to 70 was one of the things that raised Lessig’s eyebrows. Lessig points out that increasing the term of copyright beyond 50 years after an author’s death is hardly an incentive to create new works, and plays more the role of protecting old works against new challenges.

Lessig isn’t the first of his kind. Richard Stallman probably takes a more extreme stand on the issue: he wants all software to be licensed under the GNU Public License (GPL) which forces software to reveal its source code, and requires that the source code always be free to modify and tinker with. Stallman has been responsible for the development of a lot of excellent software, including the text editor Emacs, and he certainly knows of the merits of free software, as he calls it.

What’s interesting is that Lessig and Stallman both come from universities. Like Donald Knuth, the man who created TeX, they don’t come from a profit-maximizing corporate perspective. They come with a clear aim and work towards it. In a sense, they’re representative of the best traditions in American universities: some of the most radical ideas stem from universities. Google, currently the world’s biggest search company, also grew out of a student project at a university. Universities give rise to the best ideas, perhaps precisely because they’re not pressured by or responsible to existing corporations that are entrenched in old ways of doing things.

Yet, it is ironic that academics largely remains unaffected by the improvements in science, technology, by the new methods of communication and interaction and the new paradigms developed by academics. In his book The Future of Ideas, Lessig talks about how old corporations are entrenched in old ways of doing things, and hence are more resistant to change than people who have nothing to lose. I see great evidence of this in academics, as I’m going to explain here.

Academics has arguably evolved some of the bes traditions for peer-to-peer sharing, scientific publishing, and knowledge dissemination. Indeed, by making publication necessary to get credit and move higher on the tenure track, scientists are forced to publish, rather than hoard, their findings. Universities in the United States also have an excellent tradition of sincere teaching, where professors are involved not only with teaching students, but also with setting challenging examinations, regular and challenging assignments, and maintaining office hours for students to contact them and discuss specific issues. Academics at the good American university combines professional high-quality service with a culture and ethic of sharing, mixing, and reusing.

Yet, academics hasn’t scaled, or benefited from the kind of economies of scale and large participation. The first and most obvious reason for this is that there aren’t that many academicians. What we gain in quality, we lose in quantity. For instance, there’s a significant difference in the scope and nature of Wikipedia articles on Harry Potter topics, and the scope of Wikipedia articles in mathematics (and probably the Wikipedia articles in other sciences are in a similar situation). It’s very easy to find loads of online discussion on the World of Warcraft or Star Wars but hard to find quality discussions in group theory (a part of mathematics).

As I mentioned above, part of the reason is that academics doesn’t have that many people. Google Scholar notwithstanding, there isn’t much scope, either in terms of commerce or in terms of numbers, for building the kind of communities around academic topics as there are around a lot of trivia. Entry barriers are high. Also, the general tendency in academics to be careful, to have your facts right before coming to the table, means that there is less quick, rapid and spontaneous participation.

But I think the deeper problem lies with the fact that people in academia do not see the reason to challenge the way things have always been done. True, we now have email, online journal access, and a host of other facilities made possible by modern technology. Lecturers put up freely available lecture notes online. Yet, the language of thinking, at least in mathematics, hasn’t come online. We haven’t exploited the tremendous opportunities that cyberspace can offer us.

Mathematics Doctoral Programs, then and now, a Notices Letter from the Editor, describes some of these. Even today, the standard way of teaching is for the lecturer to stand in front of the board, and write stuff on it from carefully prepared notes, as students struggle to take notes/copy and ask questions. True, students now have Google and Wikipedia to help in solving assignments, in addition to the large number of books available for the purpose. But the fundamental methodology of looking at and solving problems hasn’t changed. Most alarmingly, mathematicians haven’t come around and said Wikipedia provides information, and it’s good; but we could use the same technology to provide much better, more reliable, easy-to-locate information. Let’s do it. My impression is that a lot of precious class time, and a lot of the effort of researchers, is wasted simply in resolving trivial questions and doubts of students that should have readily available answers online.

What are the reasons for this? One, of course, is that a mathematician’s job (and probably the same for any academic’s job) is a full-time one. Knowledge dissemination isn’t in the main a part of the job, so the mathematicians have little reason to put in effort for it beyond what is needed for preparing the classes. However, what I think this misses is the fact that the one-time investments needed to disseminate knowledge on a wider scale, have long-lasting repercussions, because they improve the intelligence of the audience, at very little additional effort or cost to the mathematician. When you write a book in mathematics, this means that people can read the book while you’re sleeping, and gain from the knowledge. This doesn’t make you useless to them; it means instead that they start off interacting with you from a higher plane. Similarly, if we have more mechanisms for putting academic information and ideas in cyberspace, more people can access and learn from those ideas while we sleep. That means that more people get into the subject, and more people ask us questions that require actual thought, rather than question us about trivalities.

What I fear is that the importance of having reliable and quality information available in a way that a lot of people with different needs can use it, is underestimated. True, we have public seminars and colloquia, and a lot of good work has been done, specially by MIT Open CourseWare, but this, again, remains more the exception than the rule.

I’m also aware that a lot of work has been going on, recently, with the so-called Semantic Web, particularly in the biological sciences. Some good projects have been taken on by the Science Commons, the science branch of Creative Commons. Yet, I see something missing, and strange, in these endeavors. They declare standards and protocols for scientists to follow, suggesting ways to integrate large existing amounts of data. Not surprisingly, the main push for these initiatives is biology, and specifically genomics, where commercial interests are also strong. However, what we do not see that much is entrepreneurial bottom-up spirit.

What we do not see is individual scientists, educators, researchers, graduate students, undergraduate students, and high school students, exploring a lot of new ways to make knowledge reach out to more people. The typical impression/response, it seems, is the lack of demand. I can say from my personal experience, with various small-scale initiatives I have tried and continue trying, that demand is low for bottom-up initiatives. Start a discussion on Harry Potter, or on some problem with Mozilla Thunderbird, and you’re likely to get a reasonable number of responses. Start a discussion on some obscure area of mathematics, and responses will be slow.

But I don’t think that the initial low demand is a reason to be greatly worried. It does mean that we need to be careful when porting methods and ideas from the worlds of commerce and fandom to academics, and it means we need to blend and modify to go well with the best traditions of academics. But potentially, there is a lot of demand for a good knowledge dissemination tool for academics. I think Wikipedia can prove that point: sloppy source though it is, Wikipedia is used by a large number of students. And if you actually think of it, not that many person-hours have gone into the mathematics part of Wikipedia. if we could leverage the same ideas in other endeavors, it’d be great.

(Wikipedia has had challengers in the past, most of them poorly architected; there is a new and growing threat to Wikipedia called Citizendium. From what I’ve seen, the Citizendium is based on sound principles and is likely to soon be able to offer value that is endemically missing from Wikipedia. But our thirst for knowledge, information and ideas is too large to be quenched by either Wikipedia or Citizendium).

This is what motivates me in part to work on the group theory wiki, topology wiki, commutative algebra wiki, and some other wikis that I am gradually developing. They’re based on a way of making basic mathematical knowledge available in a very structured and easily navigable way ,suggesting new insights and ideas. These aren’t the only endeavors I’m experimenting with; there are some others nascent in my mind, that I’ll blog about when I’ve got enough to say on them. And I’m not sure if these endeavors, specifically, will catch on with the masses within mathematics. They’re not likely to get an exponentially increasing audience in the near future. My hope, rather, is that with a lot of people trying a lot of new things, we’ll be able to understand what dissemination tools work, and how.

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