Friday, July 22, 2011

Academic journals, the shuttle & the internet

My post yesterday on my New England History blog was Can academic journals survive?. Last night was the last landing of an American space shuttle. Two apparently quite disconnected things.

In my history post I argued that the current restrictions on-line access to the various academic journals had created the somewhat odd situation that entire fields of research are effectively broken into two, the formal academic and the ever growing rest. I wondered how long can the journals themselves could survive outside very specialised areas once they ceased to have relevance to the broader discourse on a topic.

When I woke this morning, I decided in honour of the ending of the space era to reflect in this morning's post on that brief past period when I was head of Australia's re-emerging space activities and on the excitement and romance that space once held. Our efforts to do new things finally foundered on lack of imagination among our leaders in combination with opposition from the hard headed officials of Treasury and Finance who had little interest in what ifs or in things that could not be precisely measured. I understand their hesitations about the use of externalities in argument, but those externalities have in fact been central to new advances.

All I wanted to do in order to write my brief post was to find a few on-line references that I had found in the past. I knew the search terms that I had used last time. I knew just what the references were. I could not find them.

One problem is the sheer explosion in the size of the internet itself. I was an early internet user. If you searched on Belshaw then you got just 650 references. Today, the number is 1,060,000! A search on "jim belshaw" yields 47,000 results.

A second problem is the search algorithms. If you think about it, the very fact that we have those algorithms, that we can search, is something of a miracle. But by their nature, those algorithms will generate different results for the same search over time. Further, each time the algorithms change, so do the search results.

The third problem is simply the ephemeral nature of so much material on the internet. The problem of dead links is an issue for anyone who is active on the net.

I know that I have written about some of these things before and about the nature of responses. To a degree it qualifies the conclusions I reached in Can Academic journals survive? It may be that the  problems in the net that I am referring too will actually prevent the net reaching its full potential.

I am a very heavy internet use. Further, the way I use the net extends well beyond transactions or the discovery of immediate current information. To the ordinary user, the problems that I experience may be of limited relevance. Yet I think that they are quite important.

My thinking to this point has really focused on my own responses, essentially taking the net as a given. I am now wondering just how the net has to change if it is really to meet the needs of that minority group, Belshaw and his ilk.

A lot of the technologists and net enthusiasts I know are not much help. I have been meaning to write on this one for a while. The difficulty from my perspective is that I am expected to fit into their solutions and enthusiasms, whereas I want them to fit into mine! I am, after all, the user!

But all this has to be a post for another day.   


In a comment, KVD kindly pointed me to this link: Copyright or copywrong? How journals control access to research. I thought iy worth including to extend the discussion. 


Winton Bates said...

Perhaps we should be celebrating the beginning of a new era of private spaceflight.

Jim Belshaw said...

I hope that you are right, Winton. It will be interesting to see.

The US has pinned its hopes on that, and I haven't checked for a while on progress.

Checking now, Wikipedia as a list of the various private projects - Out of pure curiosity, I should do a follow up.

Anonymous said...

Ahead of the commentary curve again, Jim.


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, KVD. Appreciate the link.