Saturday, September 28, 2013

The instrumentalist fallacy and academic publication

It is easy to confuse a tool with the task it is supposed to accomplish.  This does not necessarily cause problems when the tool and task are perfectly matched, but easily leads to misapplication of the tool.  A bicycle is a wonderful means of transportation, but should not be used to travel across bodies of water, for example.  I call this confusion "the instrumentalist fallacy," and I deal with it daily in my digital scholarly work.

The academic review process has instutionalized the instrumentalist fallacy in some specially harmful ways.  I read this account of a group of mathematicians who used a github repository to coauthor a book:  any one can clone their source, and offer improvements for the authors to pull into a subsequent version. One of the principal authors has an enlightening post about the process here.

Note the contrast that both the wired interview and the author's blog post point out: the authors chose an open collaborative process because it resulted in better scholarship, but understood that they would receive less professional recognition or credit for it.

The instrumental fallacy equates the instrument— the traditional publishing process — with its goal, vetting the quality of scholarly work.  Is it too radical to suggest that the way to assess the quality of a scholarly publication might be ... to read it?