Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Write this way, Part 5

I started out with the assertions that (1) there are idea papers and data papers, and (2) fewer good ideas would rot in our private intellectual vaults if people had some incentive to part with their ideas (i.e., credit).

Happily, both assertions have come under fire--happily because I wouldn't have had all these interesting thoughts if they hadn't.

Eric and Randy have written to protest the artificial division between ideas and data--but I notice that both of them went on to talk about ideas and idea papers as if the division is real. :-) Any taxonomy is going to simplify and distort its subjects. That's life. But we accept such simplifications and distortions if the categories are useful. Sure, ideas and data are inextricably linked. But there seems to be general agreement that there are papers that are idea-heavy and data-light, and other papers that are idea-light and data-heavy.

I think where this has all gone wrong is with the assumption that I'm making a value judgement when I say that idea papers and data papers should be treated differently. We're used to living in a system where fast-track journals are more prestigious, so it's natural to assume that anything that is fast-tracked must be favored.

All I started with was an observation, with no relative merit implied: ideas die faster than data. Some ideas die while they're waiting for data. Maybe we should let the ideas out of their cages and see how far they can fly in their pathetic little mayfly lives.

One possible outcome would be that we find out that ideas mostly suck. I'm open to that. In fact, if ideas are flying around freely and data is still grinding out the old-fashioned way, it's probably inevitable that ideas will be valued less than data. I'm fine with that, too. For one thing, if the average credit for ideas goes down, then the slackers will have less incentive to deluge us with their empty thoughts. Also, if the credit for ideas goes down in value, the credit for data will rise. That might actually help counter the trend that Randy is lamenting--that it's getting hard to publish data without one or two sexy ideas slapped on the introduction and conclusion like cheap paint. Isn't that how buzzwords get buzzy?

The more I think about it, the more it seems inevitable that the system I'm proposing would lead to ideas being devalued and data being, er, up-valued. I honestly don't see why I can't have my cake and eat it, too. Undoubtedly if my system was implemented there would be an initial glut of ideas--the flood of crap that Randy and Darren are worried about (and rightly so). But that very flood of crap is going to do two things: drive down the average value of a free-floating idea, which will remove the incentive to publish crap ideas; and rapidly exceed everyone's tolerance for bad ideas. In the aftermath of the initial crap-tsunami, I think we'd have a world in which:
(1) the reward for publishing crap ideas would be nil;
(2) everyone would have a better-tuned crap detector, from having to sort through so much of it, which
(3) would help good ideas get noticed, and
(4) would also emphasize the value of good data and good observations. It could even help
(5) reverse the decline in funding and publishing opportunities for basic natural history.

But all of those things are epiphenomena; all I was setting out to do was suggest a system in which
(6) good ideas would be more likely to bump into someone who could use them while they were still fresh.

Maybe this rosy little future wouldn't come to pass after all. Maybe the crap tsunami would go on for so long that people would get sick of it, and go back to a system like the one we've got now. It seems to me that the worst that could happen is that we end up back where we started. But the best that could happen would be a world where good ideas found people to work on them, and the work it takes to generate data was rewarded proportionately.

There, a nice little optimistic house of cards. Go on, knock it down. You know you want to.

P.S. In a comment on WTW3, Mike Taylor called me out. In short, he dared me to send a recently-completed manuscript to ArXiv. I thought of about a dozen reasons why I could puss out, but (surprisingly enough) I'm going to look into it. Stay tuned.


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