Monday, June 30, 2014

Disruption Disrupted?

The professor who books his flights online, reserves lodging with Airbnb, and arranges airport transportation with Uber understands the disruption of the travel industry. He actively supports that disruption every time he attends a conference. When MOOCs threaten his job, when The Economist covers reinventing the university and titles it “Creative Destruction", that same professor may have second thoughts. With or without disruption, academia surely is in a period of immense change. There is the pressure to reduce costs and tuition, the looming growth of MOOCs, the turmoil in scholarly communication (subscription prices, open access, peer review, alternative metrics), the increased competition for funding, etc.

The term disruption was coined and popularized by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator's Dilemma. [The Innovator's Dilemma, Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business Review Press, 1997] Christensen created a compelling framework for understanding the process of innovation and disruption. Along the way, he earned many accolades in academia and business. In recent years, a cooling of the academic admiration became increasingly noticeable. A snide remark here. A dismissive tweet there. Then, The New Yorker launched a major attack on the theory of disruption. [The Disruption Machine, Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, June 23rd, 2014] In this article, Harvard historian Jill Lepore questions Christensen's research by attacking the underlying facts. Were Christensen's disruptive startups really startups? Did the established companies really lose the war or just one battle? At the very least, Lepore is implying that Christensen misled his readers.

As of this writing, Christensen has only responded in a brief interview. [Clayton Christensen Responds to New Yorker Takedown of 'Disruptive Innovation', Bloomberg Businessweek, June 20th, 2014] It is clear he is preparing a detailed written response.

Lepore's critique appears at the moment when disruption may be at academia's door, seventeen years after The Innovator's Dilemma was published, much of the research almost twenty years old. Perhaps, the article is merely a symptom of academics growing nervous. Yet, it would be wrong to dismiss Lepore's (or anyone other's) criticism based on any perceived motivation. Facts can be and should be examined.

In 1997, I was a technology manager tasked with dragging a paper-based library into the digital era. When reading (and re-reading) the book, I did not question the facts. When Christensen stated that upstart X disrupted established company Y, I accepted it. I assume most readers did. The book was based on years of research, all published in some of the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals. It is reasonable to assume that the underlying facts were scrutinized by several independent experts. Truth be told, I did not care much that his claims were backed by years of research. Christensen gave power to the simple idea that sticking with established technology can carry an enormous opportunity cost.

Established technology has had years, perhaps decades, to mitigate its weaknesses. It has a constituency of users, service providers, sales channels, and providers of derivative services. This constituency is a force that defends the status quo in order to maintain established levels of quality, profit margins, and jobs. The innovators do not compete on a level playing field. Their product may improve upon the old in one or two aspects, but it has not yet had the opportunity to mitigate its weaknesses. When faced with such innovations, all organizations tend to stick with what they know for as long as possible.

Christensen showed the destructive power of this mind set. While waiting until the new is good enough or better, organizations lose control of the transition process. While pleasing their current customers, they lose future customers. By not being ahead of the curve, by ignoring innovation, by not restructuring their organizations ahead of time, leaders may put their organizations at risk. Christensen told compelling disruption stories in many different industries. This allowed readers to observe their own industry with greater detachment. It gave readers the confidence to push for early adoption of inevitable innovation.

I am not about to take sides in the Lepore-Christensen debate. Neither needs my help. As an observer interested in scholarly communication, I cannot help but noting that Lepore, a distinguished scholar, launched her critique from a distinctly non-scholarly channel. The New Yorker may cater to the upper-crust of intellectuals (and wannabes), but it remains a magazine with journalistic editorial-review processes, quite distinct from scholarly peer-review processes.

Remarkably, the same happened only a few weeks ago, when the Financial Times attempted to take down Piketty's book. [Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty, Belknap Press; 2014]  [Piketty findings undercut by errors, Chris Giles, Financial Times, May 23rd, 2014] Piketty had a distinct advantage over Christensen. The Financial Times critique appeared a few weeks after his book came out. Moreover, he had made all of his data public, including all technical adjustments required to make data from different sources compatible. As a result, Piketty was able to respond quickly, and the controversy quickly dissipated. Christensen has the unenviable task of defending twenty-year old research. For his sake, I hope he was better at archiving data than I was in the 1990s.

What does it say about the status of scholarly journals when scholars use magazines to launch scholarly critiques? Was Lepore's article not sufficiently substantive for a peer-reviewed journal? Are scholarly journals incapable or unwilling to handle academic controversy involving one of its eminent leaders? Is the mainstream press just better at it? Would a business journal even allow a historian to critique business research in its pages? If this is the case, is peer review less about maintaining standards and more about protecting an academic tribe? Is the mainstream press just a vehicle for some scholars to bypass peer review and academic standards? What would it say about peer review if Lepore's arguments should prevail?

This detached observer pours a drink and enjoys the show.

PS (7/15/2014): Reposted with permission at The Impact Blog of The London School of Economics and Political Science.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Billionaires, Part 1: Elon Musk

Elon Musk did not need a journal to publicize his Hyperloop paper. [Hyperloop Alpha] No journal can create the kind of buzz he creates on his own. He did not need the validation of peer review; he had the credibility of his research teams that already revolutionized travel on earth and to space. He did not need the prestige of a journal's brand; he is his own brand.

Any number of journals would have published this paper by this author. They might even have expedited their review process. Yet, journals could hardly have done better than the public-review process that actually took place. Within days, experts from different disciplines had posted several insightful critiques. By now, there are too many to list. A journal would have insisted that the paper include author(s) and affiliations, a publication date (Aug. 12th, 2013), a bibliography... but those are irrelevant details to someone on a mission to change the world.

Does the Hyperloop paper even qualify as a scholarly paper? Or, is it an engineering-based political pamphlet written to undermine California's high-speed rail project? As a data point for scholarly communication, the Hyperloop paper may be an extreme outlier, but it holds some valuable lessons for the scholarly-communication community.

The gate-keeping role of journals is permanently over.

Neither researchers nor journalists rely on scholarly editors to dismiss research on their behalf.

In many disciplines, day-to-day research relies more on the grey literature (preprints, technical reports, even blogs and mailing lists) than on journal articles. In other words, researchers commit considerable time to refereeing one another, but they largely ignore each other's gate keeping. When it matters, they prefer immediacy over gate keeping and their own gate keeping over someone else's.

The same is true for journalists. If the story is interesting, it does not matter whether it comes from an established journal or the press release of a venture capitalist. Many journalists balance their reports with comments from neutral or adversarial experts. This practice may satisfy a journalistic concept of objectivity, but giving questionable research "equal treatment" may elevate it to a level it does not deserve.

Public review can be fast and effective. 

The web-based debate on Hyperloop remained remarkably professional and civil. Topics that attract trolls and conspiracy theorists may benefit from a more controlled discussion environment, but the public forum worked well for Hyperloop. The many critiques provide skeptical, but largely constructive, feedback that bold new ideas need.

Speculative papers that spark the imagination do not live by the stodgy rules of peer review.

The Hyperloop paper would be a success if its only accomplishment is inspiring a handful of young engineers to research radically different modes of mass transportation. Unfortunately, publishing speculative, incomplete, sloppy, or bad research may cause real harm. The imagined link between vaccines and autism (published in a peer-reviewed journal and later retracted) serves as an unhappy reminder of the latter.

Not all good research belongs in the scholarly record.

This episode points to an interactive future of scholarly communication. After the current public discussion, Hyperloop may gain acceptance, and engineering journals may publish many papers about it. Alternatively, the idea may die a quiet death, perhaps documented by one or more historical review papers (or books).

The ideal research paper solves a significant problem with inspiration (creative bold ideas) and perspiration (proper methodology, reproducibility, accuracy). Before that ideal is in sight, researchers travel long winding roads with many detours and dead ends. Most papers are small incremental steps along that road. A select few represent milestone research.

The de-facto system to identify milestone research is journal prestige. No journal could survive if it advertised itself as a place for routine research. Instead, the number of journals has exploded, and each journal claims high prestige for the narrowest of specializations. All of these journals treat all submissions as if they are milestone research and apply the same costly and inefficient refereeing processes across the board.

The cost of scholarly communication is more than the sum of subscriptions and page charges. While refereeing can be a valuable experience, there is a point of diminishing returns. Moreover, overwhelmed scholars are more likely to conduct only cursory reviews after ignoring the requests for extended periods. The expectation that all research deserves to be refereed has reduced the quality of the refereeing process, introduced inordinate delays, increased the number of journals, and indirectly increased the pressure to publish.

Papers should earn the privilege to be refereed. By channeling informal scholarly communication to social-network platforms, research can gain some scholarly weight based on community feedback and usage-based metrics. Such social networks, perhaps run by scholarly societies, would provide a forum for lively debate, and they could act as submission and screening systems for refereed journals. By restricting refereed journals to milestone research supported and validated by a significant fraction of the profession, we would need far fewer, less specialized journals.

A two-tier system would provide the immediacy and openness researchers crave, while reserving the highest level of scrutiny to research that has already shown significant promise.