Citation and Review in Research

(First published on the UNU MERIT Blog, on 30 august 2012)

Citation and peer review have been unchallenged central tenets of academic epistemology for at least as long as the keywords in this sentence have been around. To most in the field today, the very suggestion that they should ever be challenged is something akin to anathema. Yet that suggestion is on its way from a murmur to a roar. Three recent commentaries and trends that undercut the importance of citation, at least as we understand it in academe:

The very concept of knowledge is changing or poised to change. In a world where it is no longer impossible for a digital encyclopaedia to contain every fact about every entity in every corner of the planet, netizens may be excused for expecting it to. Just as surely, authors may wish to add entries on subjects that no one else has ever bothered to write on. As an instance, the Times article linked above mentions the Malayalam entry regarding an indigenous game known to ‘only’ a few million in a
part of India, for which the authors improvised a new form of citation. On such a vast trove of knowledge, is the place and significance of citations of the conventional kind intact? How would we reconcile the old with the emerging forms of authority? 

An educationalist at the Pope Centre argues that the customary research paper expected of students at every level does little to train them in the techniques of laying arguments and ideas of their own. Many do a satisfactory job of reviewing existing literature, even an exhaustive one of which takes little effort online. Few ever try to expound a thesis of their own. It is not expected of them, as it was of scholars of the age when the foundations of scientific philosophy were being laid, the age of the
word 'thesis' itself. They leave college unable to write their mind and explore an all-new idea in the manner of the research articles that they routinely review in abundance. Should we train them at universities or leave it to the select few who will continue to age in academia to muddle through it at their own pace? 

Lastly, concerns are rising over the awkward inefficiency of transacting scientific progress by way of academic journals, in a globalized, wired world. Given the skewed compulsions and perverse incentives embedded in the system, grassroots efforts have emerged to allow researchers to share negative results. It shan't be long before some crowd-sourced authority online could tell you whether or not you should be undertaking a particular research question. Oh why not?