Friday, 2 December 2011


Went to a talk last week by Aleks K where she demonstrated her Serendipity Engine.

It was very good. She was aiming to identify all the variables and apparently quirky decisions that we make every day that land us in a situtation that allow for the serendipitous 'happening' that may just alter the course of your life....forvever. Just think for a moment of the time your eyes met those of the tall dark handsome stranger across the room......but I digress. We are, of course thinking about the article you are writing, the research you are conducting. Following the talk I got into conversation with a colleague and was reminded about the difference there is between the physical browsing of a collection, a journal issue etc and the online browsing that is perhaps more typical (lamentably so by some) these days. A number of academics still bemoan the necessity of abandoning the physical browsing for the online, and they do have a point - don't they? After all, although online browsing is good fun and very good for procrastination, well, it's a different beast altogether. The argument goes of course, that you just have to stop whining and move to the online serendipitious browsing and get on with it! Surely!

But I wonder if we are being rather naive by advocating that it's ok to abandon reasearch habits that have worked well for many for so long. I compare the difference in serendipitous browsing to the differences that exist with reading a real book as opposed to reading a book loaded on your Kindle. Neither activity is bad (a self-confessed Luddite when it comes to reading books via a Kindle or even my newly acquired iPad!) per se, neither could be said to be better - in terms of research output. But both require different activities to achieve the goal of acquiring information and may inevitably (if we consider serendipity) result in different conclusions and different exit routes from the book.

This is not a bad thing but a different thing. Perhaps the main difference is that the skimming/scanning process with a physical item is in the end more focused and less 'skittery'. When I'm browsing on the web I tend to ditzy around following this link, or that, this related item, or that. Browsing a shelf load of books I'm already more focused. When I read a physical book, I have a sense of where I have come from and where I am going, but an ebook allows me to use it as a reference tool.

Where am I going with all this? I suppose I'm saying that those who bemoan the loss of the serendipitous physical browsing have a point because they have lost an activity that allowed things to be drawn together in their minds that might not happen otherwise. They fear they have lost the ability to do their job well ie research. Do we persuade them that online is better? I don't think so. I think we tell them that online is different, but that there as many eureka moments to be had this way as the other. Don't abandon the old just because the new is being forced on you! Do what you need to do in order to allow the creative muse to inspire, create and push you into making those research connections that you had never thought of before.

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