Carver, Martin, Antiquity
* When he was lying on his deathbed, veteran comedian Bob Hope was asked where he would like to be buried. "I dunno" said the old wise-cracker, "surprise me". This makes a nice contrast with today's obsession with 'choice' and the right to be in total control. Mental awakening feeds off being surprised: tales of the unexpected are enjoyable, tales of the entirely predictable less so and tales of the guaranteed outcome hardly worth picking up. So courting surprise is part of the research game too. Discovery is in our blood; not just new sites and newly unearthed objects, but new ideas and new ways of looking at the past. Currently we encounter these new things through the media and through journals such as this one, where every issue hopes to offer the reader a 'wow' or at least an 'aha' of pleasant revelation. The editor chooses authors who have something new to say, the author presents the reader with a new idea in persuasive prose, and the reader assesses it, digests it and responds to it. And the result of all this, hopefully, is that the subject moves forward.
Now compare this with the bleak geography of knowledge presented at a series of meetings in England this summer. The new unit of enlightenment is not to be a discourse or persuasive prose, but 'information'. New information is deemed the only true research commodity and it is no longer to be published but stored in e-repositories on the internet. You do not need to read anything you didn't intend, you remain in control, finding what you 'need', using keywords and search engines such as Google. Much of this is being promoted in the name of open access, the idea that the results of new science should be free at the point of delivery. Research councils plan to subsidise authors to place their work in e-journals or e-repositories, so readers won't have to pay. This way, you don't need editors; and ultimately you don't need journals.
But what safeguards will we have against the storing or promoting of nonsense on the net? Ah, (in theory at least) the peer-review system does that. Moreover, Google already contains intelligent programs guiding you to what you are (probably) looking for, and this process is being continually refined--the business of the new science of 'trust metrics'. As was explained at the National Council of University Professors meeting at King's College, London, trust metrics can also be fed by centrally appointed reviewers, paid to rank the year's output, thus increasing the citations of the papers they fancy. So, will the net become a cage? We will have thoroughly open access day and night, but only to a predetermined and sanitised supply, like a battery hen. And this will help us lay four nice regular brown eggs for the assessors' tea.
In my view these are dangerous roads to travel. Peer-reviewing is necessary but not sufficient for the process of turning information into knowledge and distributing it in a nourishing form. You need editors and publishers to do that. Even so, the ultimate arbiters of useful and interesting research are not editors or governments or councils or panellists or assessors or peer-reviewers, but readers. Readers decide what matters through their purchasing power. And what matters to readers is what's new to them; their tales of the unexpected. Journals exist to manage new research for the benefit of readers, and that means surprising them. Antiquity specialises in offering you articles you didn't know you wanted to read. But born from that moment of pleasurable surprise, your own research can take a whole new direction.
* The moratorium on excavation in Egypt declared by Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass has naturally had a mixed reception. On the one hand, the days of long term digging without a specific research priority should certainly be put behind us, in Egypt as elsewhere. No one in any country wants to see discovery draw too far ahead of understanding. But is a total ban too extreme? …