Introducing Research Cases

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The following is an expanded version of a presentation I prepared for the FORCE2015 conference at the University of Oxford to give an introduction and background to what we are trying to accomplish with Research Cases.

Motives of Correspondence

The Republic of Letters was an international network of collaborators that existed during the 17th and 18th centuries. In this metaphysical Republic, letters about natural philosophy (science), religion, politics, or really any intellectual topic were exchanged in a quasi-public manner between interested parties. Leisure time, money for postage, and a curious mind were the only barriers for entry into this network.1

The Republic of Letters was part of a bigger movement: the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, an exciting time when old ideas were being overturned, experimentation was being emphasized, and long-entrenched authority was being challenged. This was the age of sapere aude—dare to know—as discussed by Immanuel Kant in his essay Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment? in 1784.

This was a time before our overspecialization and compartmentalization of research into our tidy little boxes. Ideas were discussed freely, and flowed from one domain to another. Openness and a desire to find truth characterized this age. The sharing of knowledge was more important than feeding the ego. Citizens of the Republic wrote back and forth to each other, describing in detail the most recent thoughts, conveying the results of the latest experiments, and hunches.2 This correspondence proceeded in a very piecemeal, informal fashion—thought upon thought.

A portrait of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek by Jan Verkolje
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, here posing with his favored device of scientific communication: the letter. Portrait by the Dutch Jan Verkolje.

This happy-looking gentleman, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, is regarded by many as the father of microbiology. Among other things, he discovered bacteria and a method to drastically improve the power of a microscope. Yet he published zero papers or books. He relied on the open and effective method of scientific communication and collaboration, correspondence by letter, exchanging over 560 letters with the Royal Society during the course of his life. Leeuwenhoek is widely regarded as an amateur, and I believe that he would appreciate that designation, because he researched to satisfy his curiosity—he researched for the love of it.

Publish or Perish

For the last 350 or so years we have relied on journals for the dissemination of scholarly news. Yet journals were only a complement to the communications method already in use at the time: correspondence by letter. The journal was a labor-saving device to distribute the latest research news en masse to the public. However, as a communications medium, journals allow only one-way discourse and lack many of the advantages of interaction and collaboration that correspondence provided.

If those involved in the Republic of Letters had something that worked so well, namely correspondence by letter, what were the motives for creating the journal?

In early 1665 Henry Oldenburg obtained a copy of the newly published Journal des sçavans, published out of Paris, France. It prompted a business idea. If he could publish a journal entirely devoted to natural philosophy, he would be able to more easily promote new scientific ideas, broaden the reach of the Royal Society, and perhaps even make a little bit of money on the side. From a systems perspective, Oldenburg wanted to maximize the scale of dissemination of scientific news by minimizing the friction that existed in the system.3 Thus started the Philosophical Transactions. His plan worked except for the money part, though he generally made just enough to cover his rent.

As it turns out, many of these early decisions to create the journal and centralize scientific communications were driven simply by economics. It was cheaper to disseminate scientific news using the printing press rather than employing an army of copyists. Eventually, the economics of the machine won. More efficient was it to disseminate scientific news to a broad audience using a printing press than it was to keep up this one-to-one, direct style of interaction.

While journals have been very successful at disseminating research news, they have also promoted an attitude of fierce competition and the social consequent of publish or perish. The printing process has entrenched the subtle yet devastating ideas that research must be finished before it is shared and that peer review is a one-time ordeal. Researchers are incentivized to hold back until they have everything figured out to increase their chances of getting published. The commercialization of research and the journal publication industry have only exacerbated the problem.

The Hawksmoor Towers of All Souls College, University of Oxford
The formidable Hawksmoor Towers of All Souls College, University of Oxford, which have become a symbol of the ivory towers of research, or the disconnection between research and the public. Photo by Andrew Shiva, licensed under a CC-BY-SA license.

The economics of the journal have led to an environment of centralization in which research outputs funnel through the publisher. Publishers have become the de facto gatekeepers of knowledge, and the orchestrators of peer review. The quest for notoriety and personal gain has also played a part in this transformation, with researchers seeking to become published to make a name for themselves and to secure opportunities for future funding.

Where has this led us?

  • To a funding model for research that is tied to the publishing process, to which researchers are slaves.4
  • To a false sense of scarcity as publishers are forced to select a limited number of what they think are the best papers to publish to control publishing costs. Then we have to live with the overhead and time delays of the publishing process.
  • Research is now more about dissertation than discourse.
  • Researchers have become silos themselves (or in small groups) to protect their own interests.
  • All the above kinda takes the fun out of research.

Is this what we want? I don’t think so.

Research Cases

Let’s step back a bit. The Republic of Letters was an amazing success. What can we learn from those early days of scientific correspondence?

Andrea Rusnock said,

While publication and distribution of the Philosophical Transactions certainly contributed to the diffusion of knowledge, it did not provide for the flexibility, openness, manoeuvrability and relative rapidity of interaction that correspondence did. In short, the Society’s correspondence encouraged a more participatory science.

Correspondence networks and the Royal Society, 1700–1750

Is there some way we could craft modern technology to reinforce the motives that drove citizens of the Republic of Letters to collaborate so eagerly? Couldn’t we create something even more valuable than the original Republic because we have technology that they didn’t? Technology that excels at communication? Technology that allows us to collaborate economically in more direct and differentiated ways?

What would this technology look like? If all we needed was a modern version of correspondence, it seems that email and mailing lists would have taken over that role by now. Blogs and wikis are good at disseminating content, but they have not successfully replaced the journal either. Why haven’t these technologies replaced the journal already? The subtle, yet obvious reason is that the dissemination of content is not enough. Dissemination of content is not valuable enough in its own right to warrant widespread change in the way we do research. As a research community, we’re missing something important. Something that we’ve lost. Something that is worth changing for, something that would accelerate research like nothing else would. Never before in the history of our world has knowledge and enlightenment been so freely available to all. Never before have so many joined the ranks of the curious. Yet while they want to participate in the creation of knowledge, modern-day researchers shouldn’t need to jump through the hoops of traditional journal publishers anymore. Journals are just not the labor-saving device they used to be.

Research cases is a vision for a new kind of research—a research that is more participative, similar in spirit to the networks of correspondence that existed during the 17th and 18th centuries.

As a social business, one of our goals is to lower the barriers for people of all disciplines, subjects, and skill levels to be able to contribute to the world’s knowledge in meaningful ways. We envision the future of research being based upon open Web standards and open, domain-specific collaborative research platforms. We see the publishers of the future as the developers and providers of these platforms.

What would this future look like? Here are some principles that we think should be part of the future of research:

  • Research has a trajectory and a rhythm that drives it forward. Quasi-informal, open, flexible, in-process research is composed of many smaller pieces brought together over time. These individual pieces need to be published in context with fine-grained attribution for all contributions made. Research shared this way would lower the administrative risk for grantors and grantees, and open the door to micro-grants and other alternative funding models, which would enable greater maneuverability to follow the direction that the research leads.
  • We need to get away from the monoculture of the journal article as the only community-sanctioned format of publication and value a diversity of approaches. Researchers should own their own research and control how it is shared, though there may be an exception to this if the research was funded by a third party.
  • Direct, public, and rapid interaction between any and all interested researchers removes the need to go through a middleman for scholarly discourse. This direct collaboration should include questioning and digging deeper into each others’ arguments.
  • Research is not an elitist activity, and should be open to anyone who desires to participate and contribute, whatever the skill level. All contributions can be transparently judged based on merit. Above all, research should be fun! If the fun is not inherent in the research itself, it should at least exist as a feeling of camaraderie amongst fellow discoverers.
  • Feedback and peer-review need to be introduced much earlier and continue throughout the research process. As James Jurin said, ‘All reasonings should be left to the judgement of the Publick, to whom indeed it properly belongs.’5

We invite anyone interested to participate.


  1. Due to cultural barriers that existed at the time, the Republic was mostly comprised of gentlemen—lady interlocutors were quite rare.

  2. To get a glimpse into the openness and camaraderie that existed at the beginning of the Enlightenment, even to the open sharing of ideas, preliminary data, and thoughts that were not completely thought out, here’s an excerpt from a letter from Benjamin Franklin to Peter Collinson in 1753:

    These Thoughts, my dear Friend, are many of them crude and hasty, and if I were merely ambitious of acquiring some Reputation in Philosophy, I ought to keep them by me, ‘till corrected and improved by Time and farther Experience. But since even short Hints, and imperfect Experiments in any new Branch of Science, being communicated, have oftentimes a good Effect, in exciting the attention of the Ingenious to the Subject, and so becoming the Occasion of more exact disquisitions (as I before observed) and more compleat Discoveries, you are at Liberty to communicate this Paper to whom you please; it being of more Importance that Knowledge should increase, than that your Friend should be thought an accurate Philosopher.

    — Quoted in The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson

  3. Cameron Neylon wrote an excellent blog post about the future of research that parallels Oldenburg’s experience 350 years earlier.

  4. It may be more than coincidence that the All Souls Library was created through the bequest of Christopher Codrington, who amassed his fortune through the slave trade.

  5. After Henry Oldenburg’s prolific tenure as secretary of the Royal Society, several subsequent secretaries could not keep up with the volume and diversity of correspondence, so correspondence stagnated. James Jurin came along in the 1720s, and revived the society’s correspondence. He was so successful at this revival that he increasingly couldn’t handle the volume of correspondence. In 1752 the Committee of Papers was established to spread the load across the institution. Thus were the beginnings of peer review as we know it today.6

  6. Rusnock, Andrea. Correspondence Networks and the Royal Society, 1700–1750. The British Journal for the History of Science vol. 32, no. 2, Did the Royal Society Matter in the Eighteenth Century? (June 1999), pp. 155–69.