What Is Research?

January 29, 2009

Can the Internet destroy the University?

Every so often, we hear talk about how computers and the Internet are “changing everything”. In particular, the Internet is believed to have had a great impact on methods of research and academics. In this blog post, I explore the question of whether the Internet really has changed things, and how.

The early and late Internet

It may surprise some that the Internet was present as early as the 1960s. No, it wasn’t quite the same Internet. Rather, the Internet of the time lacked rudimentary features such as the World Wide Web and email. Email itself began in the late 60s and 70s. The bulk of Internet users were at universities.

In those early days, the Internet was largely a network used for transfering files from one computer to the other and for sending messages. Like the telephone helped people communicate with each other over long distances, the Internet offered a computer-based means of communication that transmitted text instead of voice.

In 1989, the World Wide Web was created by Sir Tim-Berners Lee and a couple of his friends. The basic idea of the World Wide Web was a standard for displaying “webpages” — files intended to be viewed over the Internet, and allowing easy links between webpages (this came to be known as the “hyperlink”). Even afer the World Wide Web was created, there was no standard graphical user interface browser to view webpages, and the tech-savvy web users often used text-based web browsers to access web pages. With time came graphical browsers such as Netscape. With Windows 95, Microsoft jumped into the web browser foray by introducing Internet Explorer.

As dial-up Internet started spreading in developed countries and a few places started getting broadband, more and more newspapers, magazines, universities, businesses, governmental organizations, and non-profits started their own websites. Soon, the Internet became a place for banking, booking travel tickets, submitting online applications to jobs and schools, and reading newspapers and magazines. Business-to-business as well as business-to-consumer use of the Internet became more common. This was also the time of the Internet bubble. Entrepreneurs and investors started believing that the old rules of the game no longer applied and that Internet businesses could grow exponentially. The success of companies like Amazon, Yahoo and Microsoft further fed into the investor frenzy. The bubble burst with the turn of the century. While the Internet continued to live on and grow in reach, businesses became wiser.

The original “new new thing” of the Internet was that ordinary business transactions (banking, purchasing goods) as well as consumer activity (reading newspapers and magazines, listening to music, watching video) could be conducted more efficiently over the Internet. The second phase of Internet expansion, termed “Web 2.0” by the Internet “guru” Tim O’Reilly, went in a different direction. It sought to move collective community activity to the Internet, and create new forms of community activity.

Community activity was not entirely unknown in the Internet. In the 1980s, prior to the World Wide Web, communities of users interested in specific topics formed Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) (Jason Scott’s Textfiles has information on this — Jason Scott’s hobby involves collecting and archiving activity on the Internet from the 1980s, including the BBSes). In the 1990s, there was vigorous participation in mailing lists and Internet Relay Chats. However, this participation was limited to “geeks” — people with some comfort with technology and deep interest in the topic. What Web 2.0 sought to do was “democratize” community activity on the Internet.

Examples included content sharing sites (such as Youtube (video sharing) and Flickr (photo sharing)), social networking sites (such as Facebook, Myspace, Orkut), and collaborative content creation sites — most notability Wikipedia. there was also a significant growth in blogging (with free blog-hosting services such as Blogger, WordPress, Typepad, and many people using free software such as the WordPress software to start blogs on their own websites). Fast-growing companies such as Google now offered a comprehensive free suite including mail, online document-creation software, and applications for site developers.

The initial growth of the Internet was thus strongly rooted in academia. Academics began exchanging documents by email long before the ordinary public did. The new spate of growth of the Internet, however, has been much more widespread. With the software created either commercially or by hobbyists, and the use widespread across all kinds of users ranging from young kids to workers to retired people, much of Web 2.0 has happened outside academia.

Adaptation to the old Internet

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, many journals introduced electronic versions. Libraries, in addition to subscribing to print copies of the journals, have subscribed to electronic access. Electronic access allows anybody within a defined range (usually within the university enrolled for the subscription) to have free access to electronic versions of the articles (usually, PDFs). In addition, services such as JSTOR allow for access to old issues of journals, some of which have not yet put up online the articles in the old issues.

Some journals are moving towards open access policies. These policies allow for free access to the electronic versions, and more importantly, release the articles under an open-content license such as a Creative Commons License, that allows other researchers to use the data of the original article freely in their own further research. To further increase the availability of articles, services such as ArXiV (for mathematics and physics) have become popular. These services allow people to upload preprints of articles that are under consideration for publication in a journal. The preprints allow other researchers to have access to cutting-edge research. The ArXiV versions, as well as versions that authors may put up on their own web sites, enable people who do not have subscriptions to the journals to still read a large number of articles.

It would be an understatement to say that this has greatly increased the ease of finding published reference material online. While the profit models for electronic access and open access are still being explored, it is clear that academics have made significant use of such access to learn about more recent as well as old research, and has thus benefited researchers tremendously.

There are concerns, though. For instance, a study by James Evans based on a database of 34 million articles, shows that as journals have become more readily available online, and as older issues have become easily available, articles have been citing fewer references and the references have become more recent. Evans thinks that one of the main advantages of the pre-web indexing system was its inefficiency, which led people on tangents and thus pulled them into reading more, and often more dated, material. Evans concludes that scholarship today engages more with recent scholarship than before. (also see his Britannica blog post).

The Web 2.0 Internet

For all the impact Web 2.0 is making in the wider world, I believe that its impact on research is limited. Why? Because for research work, communicating or collaborating using a Web 2.0 tool is usually less efficient compared to an “old-fashioned” tool like e-mail.

The growth of e-mail led to a significant increase in the extent of scientific collaboration. This is particularly notable in certain areas of physics, where it is not unusual for papers to have more than five authors. Interestingly, a lot of this collaboration happens within a university; studies have shown that the most efficient uses of e-mail are by people who use it to communicate within their organization. This is good for science because historically, the bigger collaborators have been the biggest creators. References: Chapter seven of The Logic of Life by Tim Harford (personal website and book page), and Group genius by Keith Sawyer.

The great thing about a tool like e-mail is that it is an added layer of technology that does little to disturb the fundamental process of thinking and research. A couple of collaborating mathematicians can have an intense discussion over tea, collaborate over proofs at the chalkboard, and work out detail together. Then one of them can type it out and e-mail it to the other person, who sends in typed corrections or has another face-to-face discussion. After some rounds, they can email their work to others for comment or review, and reviewers can send back their reviews easily to both authors.

Now, it is true that new modes of collaborative document creation might be helpful for authors collaborating over large distances. Thus, tools like MediaWiki and Google Docs, which allow for collaborative document creation, might be used in conjunction with email. These definitely offer significant advantages for certain kinds of collaboration, particularly in situations where people are collaborating over longer distances, and might be used by people who lack awareness of or savviness with revision control systems and SVN.

But while these offer advantages for collaborative content creation, they offer little of a substitute for the robust face-to-face or otherwise intense contact needed to do research.

Serendipitious and intense contact

Universities and research institutions manage to bring together in close contact people with knowledge and intuition in a particular area. This close contact fosters a regular and almost unavoidable exchange of ideas. In my high school, there were few people with whom I could discuss my area of interest, mathematics. In my college, where there were others interested in mathematics, I could go to a discussion area and start a conversation if I wanted, but rarely were there animated discussions going on that I could just drop into. Here, at the University of Chicago, where I’m doing graduate studies, there are several places where mathematical discussions are continuously going on. I can pop in, look at what’s going on, and join in if it seems interesting. The tea room, for instance, often has people discussing mathematics effortlessly merged with other topics, and simply sitting there makes me learn a few things here and there, and sometimes introduces me to something I wouldn’t have sought myself. The first-year graduate student office, similarly, is usually abuzz with people trying to solve their homework problems and discussing other related mathematical ideas.

It is this serendipitious contact with new ideas not explicitly sought that makes the university more than just a convenient place to exchange ideas. Face-to-face contact, the ability to make hand gestures and write on chalkboards, and the ability for anybody from outside to drop in, are hard to mimic on the Internet. This doesn’t mean that it is impossible to build on the Internet a system that allows for such serendipity (for instance, it may be possible to live stream activities in all tea rooms and discussion areas in all universities so that people in one university can tune in to the live stream of what’s happening in another — it isn’t clear, though, whether the benefits of such streaming are worth the costs). Rather, existing social networking sites and content creation sites were not designed for this purpose and are ill-suited for it.

The strength of the Internet

The strength of the Internet is its quick and ready availability. For this reason, I think that mathematical reference material, including pinpoint references (such as Planetmath, Mathworld, Wikipedia, Springer Online Encyclopedia of Mathematics, and my own subject wikis reference guide) can play an important role. It isn’t infrequent for people having a debate or discussion on a point of mathematics to resolve the matter by checking it online using a handy IPhone, netbook or laptop. More development of pinpoint references, as well as more competition among them, can be good. In addition to pinpoint references, the presence and online accessibility of journal articles is also a great boon, allowing people to clarify points of confusion immediately. Similarly, online course notes, including one-off course notes put up by faculty as well as the systemic OpenCourseWare efforts by institutions such as MIT and Yale, also add to the usefulness of the Internet. Finally, I hope for a system whereby libraries can get access not only to online versions of journal articles but also online versions of books, so that people in universities can have free access to online books. (In practice, many people donwload pirated electronic versions, but such a practice is hardly one that should be treated as a model worth sustaining).

Where the Internet doesn’t do so well is in recording off-the-cuff dialogues and conversations. If I’m talking with somebody and I’m not sure about a particular fact, I can say so, and the other person can dig me further and get another related answer. Here, my lack of full knowledge and authority is compensated by my immediate presence. However, posts on Internet forums that give partial or incomplete information, particularly for questions where definite answers exist, have the drawback without the compensation. People have to put up with reading incomplete or possibly incorrect answers, but cannot follow up with questions to clarify matters.

In summary, it seems to me that the Internet is very far from destroying the university. Rather, it can substantially increase the value of living in the university by making more information readily available online.

What about those living outside the University?

Not everybody has the combination of talent and circumstance that lands one inside a university that is a hub of serendipity of the sort I’ve described. The Internet is particularly important in providing these people some of the things that those in a good university take for granted.

Access to online references, for instance, is something that has enabled people across the world to discover new ideas and concepts that they do not find in a particular book they are following. I have discovered several new ideas while surfing Wikipedia, going through newspaper and magazine articles, surfing Mathworld and Planetmath, or link-traipsing from blogs. Access to online journal articles is another trickier question. The online subscriptions charged by journals are usually too hefty for individuals, and this means that individuals who are not members of a university or library with subscription to the journals may not be able to get access to journal articles.

This is unfortunate, but of course, these people didn’t have access to the journals prior to the Internet either. Usually, such people can get copies of the article from preprint sites such as the ArXiV, author’s personal websites, or by requesting the author personally. There is also a movement towards open-access publishing as mentioned earlier, which would in particular enable free online access for all.

But more importantly, access to full articles is not usually necessary. If online references are good and fairly thorough, users should be able to access the online reference to get an idea of at least the main points, concepts and definitions introduced in a particular journal article even if they are unable to access that particular article. As an undergraduate student, I often faced the problem of being unable to access a basic definition because the only source I could locate was an article in a journal to which my college did not subscribe. Of course, even with the existence of such references, there will be people who want to read the full article to get a deeper understanding.

Finally, open course ware presents a great opportunity for people outside the university system to get a flavor of the way leading researchers and educators think. Unfortunately, open course ware, such as MIT OCW and Yale OYC, is largely limited to lower-level undergraduate course material. It is possible that for advanced graduate course material, the demand is not high enough to justify the costs of preparing open course ware. I hope that the movement expands more and encompasses more universities across different countries and languages so that eager learners everywhere have more options.


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