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JOURNAL OF RADICAL IDEAS

Gerry Wolff

OK, the journal does not actually exist. I have prepared this page in the hope that one or more people may feel sufficiently inspired to set the journal up and run it. If you are interested, please get in touch.

Why am I not setting it up myself? I'm concentrating on other work at present (Computing as Compression) and feel that I should not lose focus, or I may get nothing done. That said, if one or more people would like to develop this proposal, I would probably want to make a contribution.

Why should anyone need yet another academic journal and why this eccentric-sounding title? To answer the second question first, the title seems to me to capture the essence of what is required but other people may have better ideas - and better designs for the logo!

The need

The need, as I understand it, arises from the notorious difficulty of getting new ideas off the ground, well documented (in the domain of science) in Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In that book, Kuhn described how science usually potters along in 'normal' mode, dotting the 'i's and crossing the 't's of established theories but, from time to time, some people begin to see problems with established views and they begin to see alternative approaches to old problems. It is typically very difficult to get going with these kinds of new thinking: articles are typically rejected by scientific journals, the necessary funding is not forthcoming, and careers suffer.

I have given some examples on my page about Radical Ideas. If you know of other examples (with relevant sources of information) please let me know. Also, please contact me if you know of other good sources of information about the examples I have given.

The problem is widespread

The problem exists in many areas, not just in science. Apparently, Van Gogh never sold a single painting during his lifetime (and was able to carry on painting only through the generosity of his brother). The impressionist painters were forced to exhibit initially in Le Salon des Refusť because of resistance to their work by the artistic establishment.

Why so much resistance?

Why is it that new ideas have such a hard time? It is possible, as some believe, that new ideas in some domain threaten the interests of the 'establishment' in that domain and are resisted for that reason. 

More prosaically, new ideas are often ill-formed when they are first conceived and it may be difficult to see their potential until they are more mature.

The thinking behind new ideas, that provides the justification for giving them attention, may be difficult to articulate. New ideas often do not fit into any established conceptual framework - which means that they typically require more than average effort to understand and evaluate.

New ideas often straddle two or more established disciplines - which means they have no natural 'home' and there are relatively few people with the necessary knowledge to make a proper assessment.

Given enormous pressures on academics and others to "publish or perish", it is not very surprising if they are not willing or able to give the time and effort which is needed to properly assimilate unfamiliar lines of thinking. Spending time on ideas that your colleagues think are ridiculous may not be the best way to advance your career!

Aim, principles and policies

What will the journal aim to achieve? How should it be run? What principles and policies should underpin it? Here is a sketch of some possibilities, with some of the background thinking.

Aim

The main and perhaps the only aim of the journal will be to provide an outlet for articles that describe a radical approach to some area or areas of interest and which are likely to meet resistance from more conservative journals.

An 'academic' journal

I envisage the journal being 'academic' in the sense that it will conform to scholarly traditions:

  • It will seek to publish articles that say something of substance with due attention to relevant detail.
  • Mere 'hand waving' should be avoided. Articles that suggest, without evidence, that perpetual motion machines are possible, should be rejected. However, referees and editors need to be very much alert to the fact that new ideas may take time to mature. Accordingly, they should be prepared to accept articles in which the ideas are not fully worked out, provided the proposals are supported by reasonably solid evidence and argumentation.
  • As is usual in academic work, authors will be expected to demonstrate an awareness of relevant research (with references in the normal manner) and to relate the new proposals to pre-established ideas.
  • Where appropriate, authors will be expected to use standard statistical, analytic, experimental, mathematical or computational techniques. If there are reasons why such techniques should not be used where normally they would be expected, these reasons should be given.

The word 'academic' is sometimes used disparagingly to mean 'not practical' or 'detached from reality'. The journal should aim to avoid the more sterile kinds of intellectual debate to which these kinds of jibes might apply.

And given the aim of the journal, it should of course strenuously avoid the kind of resistance to new ideas which is prevalent in some 'academic' circles.

Making the ideas intelligible to non-specialists

Given the very wide scope of the journal (next) and the nature of radical ideas, there is probably a case for each article containing a section designed to make the material intelligible to non-specialist readers. I envisage that this would be in the style of articles in the New Scientist or the Scientific American and about the same length as those articles.

The scope of the journal

A novel feature of the journal, as I envisage it, is that it will be prepared to publish scholarly work in any area of study or investigation: science, arts, politics, history and so on.

The main reason for not restricting the journal to any particular discipline or set of disciplines is that radical ideas often straddle two or more existing disciplines, or initiate a totally new discipline, and this can happen in unexpected ways. Any kind of constraint on subject matter or type of study might create unwanted obstacles to the development of new ways of thinking.

A subsidiary reason for publishing across a broad spectrum is that good radical ideas are probably relatively rare and there might not be enough material to support reasonably regular issues if the journal were unduly restricted in its scope.

In order to assist readers find articles that are relevant to their interests, it will be natural to assign each article to one or more categories with key words and phrases for each article to facilitate indexing.

An electronic journal

I envisage the journal being primarily electronic, as is rapidly becoming the norm for academic journals. There may be a case for making a printed version available for those readers who are willing to pay the extra costs and, perhaps, for archiving purposes until techniques for the archiving of digital information have matured.

In addition to the standard advantages of electronic publication - speed, cheapness, ease of searching and ease of indexing - there are advantages that are particularly relevant to the publication of radical ideas:

  • Owing to the cheapness and flexibility of electronic publication, there is no need for constraints on the size of each issue or even the number of issues each year. This is a likely benefit for the publication of non-standard ideas because the flow of these ideas is likely to be more uneven than normal.
  • For much the same reasons, there is no need for artificial constraints on the length of articles. (Electronic publication can plug the awkward gap that has existed for many years between the maximum length for a journal article and the minimum length for a book.) For the sake of the readers, there will probably be a case for a relatively short presentation of the main ideas. But there may be any number of appendices or supplements containing information in support of the main proposals. Given the difficulty of properly explaining new ideas, the removal of length restrictions should be a benefit.

In connection with the first point, the editors of the journal should not feel obliged to publish an issue every time one is due. If there are no articles of sufficient quality, then it is better not to publish. In the early stages, until the journal becomes well known, it is possible that issues of the journal will appear quite irregularly.

Regarding the second point, there is, of course, a risk that authors may include more material than anyone is ever likely to read or will include material that does little to support the main argument. One of the tasks of the referees and editors will be to ensure that the material included in each article is relevant and useful and that ideas are explained as simply and concisely as possible, consistent with clarity and ease of understanding.

Editors

The success of the journal will depend critically on the work of the Editor-in-Chief and the Editorial Board. Who should these people be and how should they be appointed?

To a large extent, the people who run the journal will be self-selecting. They will be people who understand the need for the journal, are keen to see it develop successfully, and are willing to devote some of their time to making it happen.

Should the editors be professional academics (meaning people in academic posts in universities)?

Arguments in favour of that idea include:

  • The journal is intended to be 'academic' and one might argue that only professional academics have the necessary understanding of how academic studies should be done.
  • The journal is intended to facilitate the entry of new ideas and new thinking into the academic arena and it will be harder for the journal to be ignored or rejected by academics if it is run by established academics. In other words, academic editors are likely to inspire more confidence in the target audience than people without that training and experience.

Arguments against the idea include:

  • Original and incisive thinking is, of course, not confined to the academic world. A clerk in a patent office might be a considerable asset for the journal!
  • For the reasons outlined above (The need), people with an original turn of mind and a corresponding appreciation of the importance of radical ideas may have failed to make progress in an academic career.

To inspire confidence in the academic community, I suggest that the Editor-in-Chief and a proportion of the Editorial Board should be established academics. But otherwise, people with some kind of alternative 'track record' may be members of the Editorial Board.

If funding allows, it would of course be very useful to have the services of an 'Executive Editor' who would do the day-to-day work of receiving submissions, corresponding with authors, sending articles to referees, and preparing articles for publication. It would not be necessary for the Executive Editor to be an established academic.

What areas of expertise should be represented in the Editorial Board?

Given the very wide scope of the journal, it will probably be impossible for the Editorial Board to include an expert on every area of knowledge. In any case, too much specialisation may be a barrier to ideas that straddle two or more disciplines. It is probably more important for the editors to be people with a keen appreciation of the importance of original thinking and what is needed to bring new ideas to fruition.

Referees

The journal should aim to build up a panel of people with appropriate expertise in diverse areas who are willing to referee articles. However, given the very wide scope of the journal, it will probably be necessary in many cases to ask the authors of submitted articles to nominate referees for each article, preferably with permission of each nominated referee but possibly without.

There are at least two problems here:

  • The people with established reputations in a given field may be the very people who are most resistant to new ways of thinking. 
  • Given the nature of radical new ideas, it may be difficult for prospective authors to find appropriate experts who are reasonably sympathetic.

One possible answer to the first problem may be to seek out referees who are themselves out of the main stream of the discipline (or disciplines) of the article being assessed. Another may be to persuade potential referees to modify their normal way of assessing articles (next).

Regarding the second problem, if the author is unable to nominate appropriate referees for a given article, and if there are no appropriate experts on the panel, then the editors may have to resort to 'cold calling' on potential referees.

The process of assessing submissions

There is probably a case for trying to disguise the author or authors of each submitted article to reduce any prejudice in the minds of referees against people who are not in established academic posts or in favour of authors with with high academic status. The name and affiliation of each author can be removed from the article. And there may be a case for removing or reducing references to authors' previous publications.

Perhaps the most critical aspect of the journal will be the way in which referees assess submitted articles:

  • Referees should have a thorough understanding of what the journal is aiming to achieve and the principles and policies on which it is based.
  • Referees should make every effort to avoid making a judgement about whether or not the proposals in a given article may ultimately turn out to be 'correct'. There are so many cases where referees have been proved wrong that it is foolhardy indeed to predict whether or not a new idea may turn out to be useful.
  • What matters is whether or not the author has made a reasonable case that the idea or set of ideas may lead somewhere.
  • As noted above, authors will be expected to demonstrate an awareness of current thinking in the field or fields that they are addressing, they will be expected to say something of substance, to avoid handwaving and to use appropriate techniques unless there are good reasons not to.
  • That said, referees need to be very much alert to the fact that new ideas may take time to mature and it may not be possible in the initial stages to dot every 'i' and cross every 't'. A balance must be struck between 'substance' and 'potential' or 'interestingness'.
  • Where an article is not sufficiently well worked out to justify publication at length, referees may recommend the publication of a short version of the article, leaving the door open for later publication of a longer article when there is more of substance that can be said.

A nursery

The journal should fulfil the role of 'nursery' for new ideas. It may take a considerable time for an idea or set of ideas to gain sufficient acceptance for articles in that area to be accepted in 'mainstream' journals and for the research to attract funding from normal sources. During that period, JRI should be prepared to publish articles in the given area, provided that each article does contain reasonable substance and provided successive articles do show that the ideas are being refined and fleshed out.

As with any nursery, editors, referees and readers of the journal need to be aware that not all the nurslings will be great successes. In order to maximise the chances of supporting good ideas, the journal needs to be prepared to support some ideas that turn out to be 'wrong', bearing in mind that the truth of some ideas may not be generally apparent for decades, centuries or even longer (Aristarchus in the third century BC proposed heliocentric astronomy 1,800 years before Copernicus).

Even bad ideas can have a useful role to play in stimulating new thinking and prompting readers to think of something better.

In general, the journal needs to accept risk as an intrinsic part of the process of developing new ideas and should not be afraid of publishing articles that lead nowhere. That is, after all, the fate of most published articles, even in regular journals!

Funding

As an electronic journal, the cost of running JRI should be fairly modest. However, if the journal were to get off the ground, there would be a need for computing resources, for office space, for a full-time Executive Editor and, perhaps, some other editorial assistance. Technical expertise would also be required to maintain the web pages (including the database of published articles) and keep the servers running.

Possible sources of funding include host universities (who may provide office space, computing resources and systems management), publishers of academic journals, government agencies and charities devoted to the support of research and research-related activities.

Possible alternatives

A possible alternative to starting a new journal dedicated to radical ideas is to by-pass journals altogether as described in Electronic Archives and the Death of Journals by Joao Magueijo. The basic idea is to allow anyone to publish in electronic archives, without peer review, and let readers decide what is useful. It sounds interesting!

Another alternative is 'open access' publishing (see http://www.publiclibraryofscience.org/,
http://www.biomedcentral.com/ and http://www.soros.org/openaccess/) combined with a change in the way refereeing is done.

In the reformed model for refereeing, referees would not attempt to decide whether a given piece of research is 'right' or not. They would simply check that it meets certain standards in the scientific methods that have been used, clarity of explanation and the like. Any article that meets those standards can be published and, because online publishing does not have the restrictions that print imposes, there is no need to worry about the maximum sizes of journal issues or the sizes of individual articles.

This would allow radical proposals to see the light of day. The long-term value of such ideas would not be judged by referees alone. They would be judged by readers, perhaps in combination with referees, if referees' reports on an article are published alongside the given article.


Last updated: 2006-08-14 (ISO 8601)

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