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!