Novelty is over-rated

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to draw people’s attention to a new letter in TREE, by Göran Arnqvist, entitled “Editorial rejects? Novelty, schnovelty!”.

Among other things, this is the coolest title ever, and so for that reason alone, you should read it. On a slightly more serious note, the letter suggests that “novelty” is an unhelpful criterion for whether an editor decides to send a paper for review or not. I wholeheartedly agree.

Arnqvist suggests several reasons, including that perceived novelty is a matter of experience and perspective, that it may foster little scientific micro-niches that are new but lack so-what, and that a focus on novelty encourages overselling and poor discussion of how something fits in with existing knowledge. Most science is incremental, Arnqvist argues.

I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment. I would add that novelty is simply unhelpful at a time when most socially useful knowledge occurs at the intersection of knowledge domains. What we need is making links (say, new links, if you like) between existing bits of knowledge, rather than truly “novel” (what’s wrong with the word “new” by the way??) bits of knowledge. Putting existing knowledge together in useful ways is often of more value to the world than finding out something that is genuinely new but useless.

I come at this from a very sustainability-oriented angle of course, which not all ecologists do (or have to). I think “usefulness” is an important criterion for research, though not one I would want to base editorial rejections on either — because it, too, is subjective.

Anyway, take-home message from my perspective: novelty, schnovelty indeed. Let’s focus on doing useful, good science and embed this within existing knowledge, rather than sell new bits of “novel” stuff that nobody really needs.

Last thought: congratulations to TREE rocking the boat with commentaries on peerage of science, academia’s obsession with quantity, and now this one — here’s a leading journal going a very different direction from Nature, Science etc!

2 thoughts on “Novelty is over-rated

  1. Thanks for this post! I feel that this obsession with novelties is a quite recent phenomena, and speculate that is somehow a behavioral anomaly linked to/induced by the high researcher population density and diminishing resources. In such conditions people just want to make themselves important, often exaggerating with many things (not only with the novelty issue).

    I started to think about these since I start to read old (i.e. at least 50 or 100 years) Hungarian scientific writings, which appeared under low researcher (if we can call them like this…) population density. There seem to be so many differences between those guys and us. Besides the fact that they don’t have under their bottom the internet, Jstor and WoS and Google Scholar et al. they produced long lasting knowledge and wisdoms. Part of this knowledge is now rediscovered sold as ”novelty” in various journals (with complex stats and nice words). They were all very experienced persons. I.e. they write about their own experience gathered in practicing forestry or grazing or more than a decade. And the humility is always there in their writings: ”this is how I feel and know based on this and that experience”. You feel that the paper is not the main thing in their life but just a small, needed, component where they share very robust experience. You also feel that they don’t hunt big explosions and there is no pressure for doing this.

    I would warmly recommend to colleagues working with the issue of ”evidence based conservation” to start thinking about including a ”history” domain. I am sure it will bring so many interesting things out, which could help not only how to manage better current ecological systems but also may help us in reflecting about our fate as researchers, and how things became as they are now.

  2. Pingback: Academia’s obsession with silly questions and made up figures | Ideas for Sustainability

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