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Posted by on Dec 5, 2011

Influences/inspiration in academic research: the case for and manual tracking of peripheral ideas

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I am most certainly not intelligent enough to come up with this idea on my own, so it must exist somewhere and in some degree of completion. I just for the life of me can’t figure out where. But that fact actually proves my subsequent point here. I believe there is room in academic research, especiallly in the model in which it exists now, for additional metrics of creation and citation.

Crediting another for not just actual research, but for inspiration for actual research. And I am not talking about an automated, algorithmic, and relatively controversial Klout score (of course I linked to my own score) or anything, although I appreciate them taking a swing at measuring impact outside of confined outputs. I am talking a normal bibliography of cited works and an ongoing research acknowledgment list of citations: scholars, academics, or anyone really who has inspired the development of this research. Even if they weren’t cited directly. I don’t need a metric or a number (a la Klout) directly; I simply need a list of names and acknowledgments (what these people actually inspired). I agree with Bon Stewart (via theory.cribchronicles.com) when she writes (much more eloquently than I can) that “we’re allowing a metric to do a human’s job”. 

All algorithms and metrics are products of their design. They are rigid, no matter how flexible and complex, and they cannot make exceptions or comprehend the subtleties of human relational interaction based solely on numbers, no matter how many numbers they use. Influence is a relational measurement. It is a human measurement. Like intelligence and learning all the other things we stupidly insist we can measure, simple because we NEED effective comparisons, influence exceeds our grasp.

A relational measurement, certainly, and design is too rigid to account for such nuances. I would argue that academic scholarship certainly inhibits acknowledging impact by relying too heavily in linear bibliographies and citation formats. Of course we should acknowledge directly those sources we drew from to write the paper. I also think we should be doing the same for those sources (or people or conversations or fleeting asides) that inspire the development of the idea that became the paper. This could take place as an acknowledgments section at the beginning of the article or book. Sure, that is nice and tidy. But what about inline citations of influence? It would be a mess, highly complex, and almost impossible initially to do anything with, but it is an attempt to grapple with the complexity and subtle permutations of ideas, the currency of the realm. 

I want my academic research, especially that of the analytical variety, to read like Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction. A story within a story (most of the pertinent detail being introduced as an aside in parentheses). The research stands on its own without the acknowledgments (indeed without the formal citations half the time), but reads more nuanced with an inline attempt to trace the genesis of an idea. A wiki of a research paper, a textured research paper of layers. Certainly a good exercise for students to grapple with complexity (what are you trying to say in this paper and where did that seed come from? Reverse engineer the genesis of this research). 

I was discouraged when in my formal years of education I was marked down for including sources in my bibliography that I didn’t actually cite. To be fair, I was skirting what was accepted practice in formal education. To be honest emotionally, practice or not, I was actually discouraged from acknowledging sources that led me to that research. A professor, an online dialogue, a Twitter thread. Avoiding acknowledging that, indeed not drawing a great deal of attention to these influences, irked me. I want a manual process of acknowledging flow of an idea, a process of orientation towards a final research output. 

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(even as an impressionable young adult in parochial school in Youngstown, Ohio, I stood in my dark suit and red striped tie in the second to last row off to the right and questioned why I couldn’t mention that The Count of Monte Cristo inspired everything I wrote for at least five years, even if I never quoted it). 

I am not talking about an Academy Award acceptance speech. I am talking about an ongoing acknowledgment of influence (self-reported) and some data standard to make use of it (or at least link it logically). I am looking for  the idea-based impact that serves to augment the linear acknowledgement of bibliographies (I used Fact A from Publication B hence Citation C).

Not an automated solution. Let me make that clear. Clever people the world over are tinkering in these realms of automation. I don’t need automation (but clear uniformed data standards on how we acknowledge these influences might be nice), a number or pie graph or chart or even a badge. I want names in circulation alongside citations. An additional layer of ultimate impact, even an often overlooked measure of the genesis of an idea that culminates in published research. 

I see Google Scholar pushing a little bit towards this (author identification and identity management) by allowing authors to create their own pages (and claim their own research and co-authors). A little bit of additional credibility. Mendeley has tried (and I believe largely failed-largely because it can’t scale out as much as it needs to beyond its own walled garden), Academia.edu (is that still going?) has taken a swing. Trying to capture the social elements around research and acknowledge them in some way, even informally.

I simply want to be able to include acknowledgments, inspirations, influences (whatever terminology we decide to use) in any academic work I do. Trace the genesis of an idea through a paragraph at the beginning of an article. A chapter or page at the beginning of a monography. Let the author decide, or at least make a case for, how they envision the research slotting in with the larger picture. Ultimately these acknowledgments/influences can be tracked back to the individual and that individual can have something like below as a record of their work, not only the published kind but their associations, organizations, ideas they contributed to or influenced. Just another layer of individual impact that can make published academic research a bit more holistic. I see the example below of a plant collector, a fairly uniformed presentation of a life’s work pre-internet (this ‘biography’ was, at one point, written down and then cobbled together). We should be able to do more now, to deal with more complexity, but alas we still are looking for a number, a picture, an abstraction. Process holds us up and holds us in. In this case, process (as design) is stunting us. That and a reliance on simplifying complexity to the point of abstraction. 

I would like to thank The Academy for making this all possible. 

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