Re: Beyond Access and Impact: The Ultimate Benefit of SkyReading/Writing

From: David Goodman <dgoodman_at_PRINCETON.EDU>
Date: Thu, 29 Nov 2001 18:13:40 -0500

Dear George, Joe, and Stevan

I am very well aware that there are many types of reviews and summaries,
of various usefulness.

One is the type of comprehensive listing of everything relevant the
author was able to find, with a non-evaluative descriptive paragraph or
two. Many ARIST reviews are in that category. many Annual Reviews of ...
are also. Another good example is
Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews (MMBR), which typically have
many hundred of citations at the end.

At the other extreme are reviews like the Current Trends group of
titles, where small active topics are discussed in detail from a
particular point of view.

And there are also the slightly simplified tutorial presentations for
the undergraduate, like the Nature Reviews group.

And there are the news type publications--such as The Scientist.

All of these take work to do. All of these need to be written by
knowledgeable people. On the other hand, they are a way for people to
demonstrate that they are in fact knowledgeable and in command of their
subject. The former editor of one of these publications told me that
about half the reviews in their publication were commissioned, and half
contributed by volunteers. All were subjected to peer criticism before

The need for a summary of informal discourse is more important than some
realize. I agree that the active participants may not need such a
summary. Some of what appears here is drivel. Some of it is not, but is
nonetheless trivial or of temporary interest only. But there is in fact
much material of value here that is not found elsewhere--I would call
these the current equivalent of "working papers." I maintain my own
selection for some key things, and count on the archives for the rest.
Those from outside the field might appreciate a little more help.


George Lundberg wrote:
> good morning
> The process and product being discussed has existed for aeons in the
> pre-internet age and continues to fluorish electronically. There is a wide
> appreciative audience. It is called "Review Article" or "Journalistic
> Report" or "Summary".
> Of course there must be substance worth bothering with as a premise for
> creating such. Drivel abounds in pubs, TV talk shows and internet chat lines
> and is best left as drivel.
> george lundberg
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Joseph Ransdell [mailto:ransdell_at_DOOR.NET]
> Sent: Wednesday, November 28, 2001 12:28 PM
> Subject: Re: Beyond Access and Impact: The Ultimate Benefit of SkyReading/Writing
> In response to the message from Stevan Harnad explaining the benefits of
> "skywriting" (or rather "skyreading/writing"), David Goodman wrote:
> DG> I confess to never having thought of it before now, but it seems
> DG> apparent that we now need appropriate interpretive summaries of major
> DG> email message sites, aimed both at the specialist who wants a
> DG> comprehensive account, and , probably separately, at the non
> DG> specialist who wants to know what going on .
> DG>
> DG> I know this may be met with some skepticism in this forum, but I suggest
> DG> (and very strongly) that this is an appropriate activity for human
> beings,
> DG> not computers.
> I agree that it would be needful for human beings to do this sort of thing
> if it were desirable to do it at all. My own scepticism about this, though,
> has nothing to do with possible computer solutions as an alternative but
> rather with the fact that people who would be competent to provide such a
> service could not be found to do it: in general, the able would not be
> willing. Some exceptions might be found, but far too few to justify the
> attempt to institute such a practice in a general way.
> Why? Because for such summaries to be of much value the summarizer has to
> be sophisticated enough in the given field to understand what it is
> essential to capture in the summary and what can safely be ignored, and,
> moreover, to be able to compose such summaries in an effective and
> inoffensive way as well, free as much as possible from any identifiable
> bias. For a summary purports to be a statement of fact about a real thing,
> in this case an intellectual process occurring in public discourse, and even
> at the very best it would introduce into the process it monitors a
> redundancy that would in practice be highly prone to introduce unnecessary
> interpretational confusion and dispute.
> In short, any person who was a legitimate candidate for that sort of job
> would have to be an intellectual peer of those whose discourse was being
> summarized . But those competent to do that sort of thing will almost
> always prefer to participate in such a dialogue as an interacting peer
> within it rather than to make the pretense of standing above it, as it were,
> providing a god's-eye view of what has really been said.
> Then, too, who would be interested in such a summary? Those seriously
> interested in the topic at issue -- assuming the topic to be timely and
> important relative to the aims of the inquiry process being summarized --
> will not be satisfied with such a "neutral" description of what others have
> said but will want to read the very words of the participants themselves in
> order to understand what is being claimed, suggested, implied, insinuated,
> presupposed, and so forth, without dependence on intellectual servants who
> will "save them the trouble" of figuring out for themselves what is going
> on. Summaries could perhaps be helpful for the purposes of historians of
> ideas, but I should think it preferable that historians do the work of
> discourse analysis and summary for their particular purposes themselves.
> There is already too much reliance by historians on summary accounts by
> other historians of important matters -- a practice in which the secondary
> literature takes the place of the data upon which the historian should be
> basing his or her account -- and this would probably only tend to exacerbate
> this problem.
> There might seem at first to be an important difference in the usefulness of
> such summaries depending on whether we are talking about scientific fields
> -- especially the natural and/or experimental sciences -- or about
> non-scientific ones, since the relationship of the natural/experimental
> scientist to the text produced in professional communication is usually
> rather different from that of, say, the humanist. The scientist wants
> clarity, precision, lack of ambiguity, brevity, and absence of unnecessary
> rhetorical or ornamental verbalism, insofar as that is feasible, given that
> this is rarely more than an ideal imperfectly approximated: in effect, the
> scientist wants verbal (i.e. textual) transparency in the text communicated
> since his or her interest is in the subject-matter which the communication
> is about, not the text in its own right, whereas the humanist is frequently
> concerned with properties of the text itself, which is often itself an
> important part of the very subject-matter under discussion. And it might
> seem as if judiciously written summaries of the bare bones of the scientific
> discussion would involve minimal creative interpretation on the part of the
> summarizer. But insofar as the discussion to be summarized is driven by
> disagreement about theoretical matters or about the interpretation of data
> it will tend to take on the same characteristics as the argumentative
> discourse typical of fields where textual interpretation is a matter of
> normal and overt concern. Since it is only such discourse that could be
> expected to be of any interest, in any case, this apparent difference thus
> seems insignificant.
> Now, participants in such dialogues sometimes have occasion themselves to do
> some summarizing of what has been said -- though rarely of the line of
> thought as a whole -- but both the form and content of this sort of
> participant summarizing is determined by the aims of the individual
> participants and the way their aims are working out in the course of
> discussion, not by any motive of providing an impartial or disinterested
> overview. Disinterested overviews do not normally occur in authentic
> intellectual discussions where the aim is to test and develop ideas
> interactively: this is not an intellectual vice to be remedied but rather a
> consequence of the interactivity of the process, where each contribution to
> it is occasioned by something an interlocuter has said, provides the
> occasion of a further contribution by someone else, and is intentionally
> shaped in a persuasive way by each of the participants insofar as they are
> persuasive.
> David is perhaps misled by state-of-the-art review articles, often
> commissioned by editors of journals to provide an overview of the various
> positions held by researchers on some controverted topic, along with the
> reasons why the various positions have been held or controverted. These do
> not purport to be or aim at being summaries of actual dialogical
> interchanges, though, but represent the reviewer's attempt at isolating what
> he or she thinks is or is not important in what has been said on many
> different occasions. These can indeed be helpful at times, though only to
> the extent that one realizes and duly compensates for the fact that such
> summary reports are to be taken cum grano salis and are likely to be
> regarded as biased at times, and sometimes rightly, by at least some of the
> participants, if the opportunity should arise for them to register such a
> complaint.
> Librarians may have a natural tendency to exaggerate the importance of
> keeping permanent records of all professional communication, whenever
> possible, overlooking the fact that informal professional discourse is
> rarely regarded by those participating in a research tradition as involving
> argumentation and assertion with the sort of seriousness appropriate to
> something that is said as a final and considered statement of one's view. It
> is very important that there be a "lapidary" medium for formal publication
> in research -- understanding "lapidary" in the extended sense of a medium
> whose content can be returned to at will and for an indefinitely long period
> -- but that is because of recognition of the need for occasions when one is
> to be held responsible for taking and holding to a certain reason-based
> conviction, in contrast with communication in which one is exploring
> possibilities by tracking out their consequences without the inhibition of
> the need for commitment to them. Those special lapidary communications --
> "primary research publications", as they are sometimes called -- are what
> provide the anchor points in research as a communicational process that at
> once enables and facilitates progressive development in the research
> traditions.
> But the importance of there also being much informal discourse, and of
> varying kinds, should not be overlooked, as it too commonly is at present,
> where the emphasis on formal publication as a commodity in the economics of
> prestige has led to grotesque deformations of intellectual life in the
> humanities in particular, where entire departments can come to resemble
> lunatic asylums at times, with no meaningful and professionally relevant
> informal communication occurring at all among what are nominally collegial
> peers. Where the dialogue is informal, there is some which should indeed
> by recorded verbatim -- as it frequently is, in fact -- for reasons such as
> those which Stevan ably describes in his account of "skywriting" and for
> other reasons as well.
> I agree with Stevan, too, that something desirable but heretofore impossible
> is available now, and I suggest that the reluctance to recognize the value
> in this may be based on the mistaken belief that little or no importance
> attaches to research communication which is not of the nature of primary or
> formal publication. In fact, though, one could argue that it is not
> infrequently the case that informal communication is even more important
> since the ideas that come finally to be accepted by the research community
> are generated and refined and rendered rationally persuasive chiefly in
> informal circumstances, and the primary publication in which they eventuate,
> though essential in the process, actually plays a relatively minor role in
> acceptance. But the need for summary overviews of informal discourse, from
> the standpoint of a non-participant observer, is nevertheless dubious for
> reasons given above.
> Joseph Ransdell
> Dept of Philosophy
> Texas Tech University
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Received on Sun Dec 02 2001 - 15:10:31 GMT

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