At the 38th Dies Natalis of Maastricht University, Prof. dr. Luc Soete reflected upon two important transitions the academic world is witnessing: the shift towards e-science and the democratization of knowlegde. Soete’s speech was interlaced with self-plagiarism-disclaimers, as recently a discussion on the topic exploded in The Netherlands.
“I belief that we still haven’t realized how dramatically the science and research system has changed over the last decade. How much science has been in transition for some time now”, Soete said with regard to e-science.
“With the easiness of digital access, the reproduction and re-use of scientific knowledge, Isaac Newton’s ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ has received a dramatic impulse”, Soete continued, leading to “New forms of scientific output, such as nano-publications, data and code; a vertical disintegration of the value chain; a greater role for inductive methods (everything becomes a Genome Project); a scaling up of serendipity at global level with big linked data, collaborative annotation, social networking and knowledge mining detecting unexpected correlations on a massive scale; better science with reproducible and truly falsifiable research findings; an earlier uncovering of mistakes; more productive science reusing data and products, crowdsourcing of work and reducing time-to-publication.”
Output explosion challenges insiders
“This increase of input into the global academic system looking for output and recognition is one of the main drivers why the system as we knew it is being challenged. Most insiders who control this ‘market’, and also the measurement of the quality of the output (‘excellence’) and thus reputation have been hired at a time when no such competition existed, whereby one may wonder if they themselves would have been hired if similar market conditions had been in place.”
“Ultimately, there is no reason why e.g. the old age of a university would remain a competitive advantage for research or for its current academic reputation, once the outsider-insider dualisation of the academic labour market is fully recognized. We might well witness in the near future much more radical processes of creative destruction with new young players challenging the protected insiders.”
Comments bad for science
But there is another fundamental change threatening old fashioned academia. Soete: “The second radical change is the democratization and participation of knowledge challenging us as academic community having had for Centuries privileged access to scientific facts and wisdom.”
“Last September, the American popular science magazine Popular Science decided to shut off readers’ comments. As the online content editor, Suzanne LaBarre wrote and again I quote: ‘Comments can be bad for science. That’s why… we’re shutting them off’.”
LaBarre argued that uncivil comments not only polarized readers but that an ad hominem attack under an article even changed the participant’s interpretation of the original news stories. Or, as researchers Brossard and Scheufele put it in the NYT Sunday Review: “Comments from some readers, our research shows, can significantly distort what other readers think was reported in the first place.”
Compassion with the populists
Luc Soete: “If you carry out those results to their logical end, commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded-you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the ‘off’ switch…”
“This extreme reaction highlights the problem we, as academic community are and will be increasingly confronted with in the ‘participatory knowledge society’, if you would allow me to use this term.” So how to respond to this challenge? Retract in the ivory tower? Or embrace the democratization of knowledge?
Soete opts for ‘compassion’ when confronted with populism, hereby following the argument of Marcel Canoy. “Compassion is an interesting concept to reflect upon in the way we, as academic community participate ourselves in the participatory knowledge society. While compassion might seem at first sight very much at odds with the typical scientists’ search for the truth without any comprise, let alone compassion for others, it might well hold interesting features in re-establishing trust between science, the media and the public at large.”
Here you find the full speech of Luc Soete.