New Podcast: John Wilbanks on Barriers to the Flow of Scientific Knowledge

In the latest in the series of podcasts on topics related to scholarly publication and copyright, the Executive Director of Science Commons, John Wilbanks, discusses how and why Science Commons is working to improve the flow of scientific knowledge so that complex scientific, technical, and medical problems can be solved more quickly.

Download the audio file (14:35 minutes; 13.9MB)


Following the recorded interview, Wilbanks agreed to answer just one more question, which we did not have time to include in the recording: Ellen Duranceau: I understand you majored in Philosophy as an undergrad. Is there is particular philosopher’s work that you draw upon to support his efforts with ScienceCommons?

Wilbanks responds: “Philosophy has turned out to be directly relevant to our work at Science Commons – the principles behind the Semantic Web are essentially the same as those investigated for centuries by philosophers from Hume to Plantinga. In terms of influence, I could list a dozen philosophers that have influenced one element or another of our work. I know that Thinh Nguyen, our counsel, is deeply influenced by the work of Daniel Dennett (and everyone involved in science should read Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea“). But I’m probably most influenced overall by Thomas Kuhn, who wrote “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” and introduced the idea of the paradigm shift.

Now, paradigm shift is a devalued phrase today. It is justly mocked in commercials and cartoons (the Simpsons do it justice above all) as a catch phrase for managers without a clue. And “Structure” is not a thrilling read. But the core arguments about how ideas emerge in science, are beaten down by the establishment, and have to force general changes in the overall knowledge structure of science – those arguments resonate deeply with me. And a huge part of what we’re trying to do at Science Commons is enable the overall acceleration of the cycles Kuhn describes, to make it faster and faster and faster for ideas that deserve to emerge to emerge, and to let as many people into the process as want to be there.

This mix of accelerating research cycles and increasing participation in science through lowered barriers means that we get more revolutions, faster. It’s one of the only non-miraculous approaches available to us. We need theoretical breakthroughs in fields across the sciences, we need more revolutions, and Science Commons is trying to deploy the infrastructure of knowledge and that can make those revolutions easier to achieve.”

The other episodes in the podcast series are available on the scholarly publication website. To subscribe to the MIT Libraries’ Podcasts on Scholarly Publishing, paste this link into iTunes or another podcast reader:

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