Fifty years ago today, the most important letter to the editor I ever read appeared in Science. I recommend that you read it.
The letter was on the vast quantity of articles in scholarly journals. Nobody knew what to do with them. The writer called this “chaos in the brickyard.”
Today, the pile of academic bricks is immensely larger. Nobody knows what to do with them.
Government funding of higher education has caused this. “Publish or perish” has caused this. And remember: this was written before on-line publishing.
It began: “Once upon a time. . . .” Sadly, it is not a fairy tale.
Once upon a time, among the activities and occupations of man there was an activity called scientific research, and the performers of this activity were called scientists. In reality, however, these men were builders who constructed edifices, called explanations or laws, by assembling bricks, called facts. When the bricks were sound and were assembled properly, the edifice was useful and durable and brought pleasure, and sometimes reward, to the builder. If the bricks were faulty or if they were assembled badly, the edifice would crumble, and this kind of disaster could be very dangerous to innocent users of the edifice as well as to the builder, who sometimes was destroyed by the collapse. Because the quality of the bricks was so important to the success of the edifice, and because bricks were so scarce in those days, the builders made their own bricks. The making of bricks was a difficult and expensive undertaking, and the wise builder avoided waste by making only bricks of the shape and size necessary for the enterprise at hand. The builder was guided in this manufacture by a blueprint, called a theory or hypothesis.
It came to pass that builders realized that they were sorely hampered in their efforts by delays in obtaining bricks. Thus there arose a new skilled trade known as brickmaking, called junior scientist to give the artisan proper pride in his work. This new arrangement was very efficient, and the construction of edifices proceeded with great vigour. Sometimes brickmakers became inspired and progressed to the status of builders. In spite of the separation of duties, bricks still were made with care and usually were produced only on order. Now and then an enterprising brickmaker was able to foresee a demand and would prepare a stock of bricks ahead of time, but, in general, brickmaking was done on a custom basis because it still was a difficult and expensive process.
And then it came to pass that a misunderstanding spread among the brickmakers (there are some who say that this misunderstanding developed as a result of careless training of a new generation of brickmakers). The brickmakers became obsessed with the making of bricks. When reminded that the ultimate goal was edifices, not bricks, they replied that, if enough bricks were available, the builders would be able to select what was necessary and still continue to construct edifices. The flaws in this argument were not readily apparent, and so, with the help of the citizens who were waiting to use the edifices yet to be built, amazing things happened. The expense of brickmaking became a minor factor because large sums of money were made available; the time and effort involved in brickmaking was reduced by ingenious automatic machinery; the ranks of the brickmakers were swelled by augmented training programs and intensive recruitment. It even was suggested that the production of a suitable number of bricks was equivalent to building an edifice and therefore should entitle the industrious brickmaker to assume the title of builder and, with the title, the authority.
And so it happened that the land became flooded with bricks. it became necessary to organize more and more storage places, called journals, and more and more elaborate systems of bookkeeping to record the inventory. . . . .
(To read the rest, click the link.)