raising the bar

Here’s a quote I came across during my new mission. It’s by Claude Shannon, the father of Information Theory, in an editorial called “The Bandwagon”, published in IRE Transactions on Information Theory, 1956.

Ths subject of information theory has certainly been sold, if not oversold. We should now turn our attention to the business of research and development at the highest scientific plane we can maintain. Research rather than exposition is the keynote, and our critical thresholds should be raised. Authors should submit only their best efforts, and these only after careful criticism by themselves and their colleagues. A few first rate research papers are preferable to a large number that are poorly conceived or half-finished. The latter are no credit to their writers and a waste of time to their readers. Only by maintaining a thoroughly scientific attitude can we achieve real progress in communication theory and consolidate our present position.

I wasn’t around back then, so I can’t really speak to the experience of someone who has invented a new technique only to find it being applied somewhat incorrectly in all sorts of contexts for which it was not designed. But I would argue that exposition is always important. Working over the research ground to aerate it is healthy, and will help construct a narrative across the discipline.

The advice to authors is certainly valuable as a warning, but as a prescription it lacks relevance to our current situation. The fact of the matter is that lots of papers which are complete crap get published all the time. One view is that it has become increasingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff and we should heed Shannon’s advice. Another is that people should build some sort of research story that they want to tell, even if it is a little wrong, and then publish it so that other people get excited. It’s not so that others will do the work, but so that more views are out there.

I fall somewhere in the middle. It’s very tempting to work and work and refine and refine your creation until it is as perfect as you can make it. What having my plays produced has taught me is that in handing it over to others and seeing what they make of it, you learn where the faults and cracks are yourself, even if those are not as apparent to others. Perhaps the journal should be left as an archive for top-rate papers, but the research enterprise is not well served by a stream of perfect gems. People need to see new ideas, even somewhat half-baked ideas, just to get the creative juices flowing.


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