The Book of Trogool

Introduction – the Honor System

As a new blogger here at Book of Trogool I’d like to thank Dorothea for the opportunity to share in the discussion of evolving issues in technology, libraries, research, and scholarly communication.

I’m currently the Scholarly Communications and Library Grants Officer at Binghamton University, in upstate New York. I’ve been a librarian for some time (12 years now) and before that I was a chemist, with research experience in inorganic photochemistry, surface science reaction dynamics, and equine drug detection and quantification methods. While I did different experiments in each lab, each place was surprisingly similar in its culture and practice, and it was this lack of creativity in the research process that drove me to librarianship, although many of the projects themselves were interesting and insightful.

While I’ll share some ideas from my library experiences here, in my current role I frequently find myself going back to my roots, so to speak, to understand and share the challenges of these emerging tools, behaviors, and systems. I understand things best by analogy and metaphor, and I think to better understand a new or changing culture you can find a lot of the answers from the past.

When I started as a serious (i.e. college) student, I attended and graduated from the University of Virginia. In addition to having its own well-defined culture, nomenclature, and social environment it also had the Honor Code and System. Anyone familar with honor systems knows the essense of the system is trust. UVa’s system is pretty unique in that it has been entirely student-run since its inception in the 1800s, and only your peers could accuse and convict you of cheating. The system also had a single-sanction rule, so one offense and that was it. You were gone.

This system was not without some peculiarities. If a homework assignment was pledged, as we called it, you couldn’t work with anyone. As a science major I could never ask a classmate for help with my assignments and lab reports, so I could never collaborate on anything or learn from my peers. I also never got an final exam returned to me, so I never knew what I didn’t learn from a course. In practice it isolated and sequestered knowledge and information.

This single-sanction system is lot like the traditional publishing environment. Research output is carefully controlled and hidden prior to publication – no one can see the research until the final paper is published. If you go outside “the rules,” just like the single sanction, your credibilty can be challenged and your reputation can suffers. Just like the honor system, once you’re out its permanent. As a result there is little incentive to innovate with new methods of communication technology or produce output that is not recognized by the honor system.

So while Honor sounds great in theory its not so useful in practice. I use the capital because academia still abides by this principle. You see it in the tenure and promotion decisions and the way campus business and policy is conducted.

Another characteristic of honor is that it is very personal. And this is another disconnect I see with how traditional research is happening today. The publishers feel they are bestowing honor on the researchers by accepting and publishing their manuscript, and the researchers feel their research output and projects are giving honor and prestige to the publication. And this, I think, is where the challenge lies – to convince each group that their honor resides within themselves, and isn’t transferred between one or the other in order to become legitimate. Never once as a student did I think the University made me honorable, or gave me honor by being there, I demonstrated honor by my actions and behavior.

Can this be changed? I hope so, because the culture can’t continue in its current state. I hope to explore the issues and I encounter in discussions with faculty, students, researchers, administrators, and policy makers, and provide advice and strategies to affect positive change. I’ll also try to explain some of the oddities of library culture, specifically academic library culture, which can be perplexing to anyone not immersed in this environment.

Comments

  1. #1 Christina Pikas
    July 14, 2010

    i love this bit

    The publishers feel they are bestowing honor on the researchers by accepting and publishing their manuscript, and the researchers feel their research output and projects are giving honor and prestige to the publication. And this, I think, is where the challenge lies – to convince each group that their honor resides within themselves, and isn’t transferred between one or the other in order to become legitimate.

  2. #2 Verpa
    July 19, 2010

    I’d personally love to hear more about ‘lack of creativity in the research process’ when you have time.

    On the honor-transfer note between publishers and researchers, I think it’s a question of game theory, publications get rewarded by publishing the best articles, researchers for being published in the best journals. Unfortunately our current system also rewards for number of publications when you get below the top tier. There needs to be ( but won’t be ) a restructuring of the system to not reward quantity. One proposal I’ve heard floated is to only evaluate profs on the top N articles ( good luck figuring out a decent criteria to judge that ) and journal rankings by the bottom M articles they publish.