In 1912, when Alfred Wegener first publicized his theory of continental drift, it was met with great skepticism. Wegener was a meteorologist, and the geology community viewed him as a naive outsider. Scientists “are very suspicious of fundamental novelty,” and rightly so — extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (a phrase popularized by Carl Sagan, but drawing from the words of Laplace and Hume). There are a lot of crackpots out there with theories, after all.

But there’s also great power in approaching a scientific question from a novel point of view. If you’re not schooled in the dogma of the field, you’re not limited by it. This remains something of a struggle for most researchers and journal editors — remaining true to one’s established field and a high level of rigor while still being open to new ideas.

The video below, from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Biointeractive educational resources tells Wegener’s story. It took until the 1970’s for enough evidence to be collected that Wegener’s theory that the continents moved to be generally accepted.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.

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3 Thoughts on "Continental Drift: The Power (and the Struggles) of an Outsider’s View in Science"

Academic Press London when I was editorial director published books on Renewable Energy, Lead Poisoning and on Fibre in Diet during the 1970s. We saw them as important and it turned out that they were important but the sales were poor and there was hardly any interest/reaction. I suppose they were all the latest scientific thinking for practitioners. We also started a new journal supported by authorities like Sidney Brenner called something like Molecular Medicine. Again we were right but there was not enough copy and it failed. Do publishers still have a role to fail?

Yes, publishers do have that responsibility. The problem lies with the academics that, as the video demonstrates, are protective of their disciplinary turf. Graff’s recent book, “Undisciplining Knowledge”, makes clear that this is a problem within The Academy and how it is structured. Today, many scholars cross these lines and institutes form to escape the discipline knowledge trap.

The move by publishers to distribute articles as approved allows such knowledge to start to break the attempt to bundle research into proscribed packages called “journals”. This allows both narrow focused disciplines and inter/transdisciplinary materials to reach an audience that seeks the knowledge separate from traditional packages. After all, the concern about the conservative nature of disciplines creates problems within The Academy and, as David’s article points out, leads to the potential for failure of a new journal from lack of submissions of merit.

Most researchers seek articles using standard search techniques and do not track their areas of interest by reading the mix grill of articles that appear in a specific journal. Of course, publish/perish wants journals as a default. Like disciplinary departments, this becomes increasingly like trying to fit the step daughters’ feet into Cinderella’s glass slipper.

It is interesting to note that Wegener did publish and subsequently corrected his own works as was done by others and colleagues in the days prior to the first scientific journal and subsequently via a variety of paths with the establishment of journals. We see this today both with the early work in Complexity Sciences (which welcome cross disciplinary research) and the opposite in standard economic journals which still eschew the Heterodox community.

It seems to the advantage of the publishers to encourage such transformations. Their risk including promotion of “Impact Factors” could be minimal and even an advantage done creatively.

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