I have this long post in draft form about U.S. foreign policy and Central Asia, but I’ll probably never finish it before it gets stale (not least because I have an edited volume to finish). There is, however, a very interesting discussion going on over at Crooked Timber about academia, ideas, and progress. You can read the details yourself. I only have a few comments:
1. The goal of cumulative knowledge in the social and natural sciences is all well and good. The fact is, however, that academics should strive to cite and reference prior work that is relevant to our own because our ideas are our currency. We are hired, fired, promoted, and accorded relative status by our colleagues largely on the value of our intellectual output. This imposes a basic obligation to cite your sources and inspiration, and an obligation to seek out work, even in other fields, that parallels your own. There are limits on what can reasonably be expected on the latter front, but searching journal databases – let alone googling – for central aspects of your manuscript fall well within them. This is, I believe, the basic code that should govern all academic work.
2. There are unethical and inconsiderate sorts who will violate that code. There are also people who will do so even though they operate with the best of intentions. But there is a much bigger structural problem looming that precludes us from adequately acknowledging the work of others. I speak here of the incredible shrinking word limits of journals and book publishers. What’s the first causality of any attempt to cut those extra one thousand words? Not the irrelevant part of your argument that you nonetheless just have to get into print, but a citation here, a citation there… at 20-30 words each, references can really add up.
3. Wheel reinvention is not only sometimes desirable, it is inevitable. Most good ideas – and almost all bad ones – have already occurred, in one form or another, to someone else. This, of course, greatly complicates the academic code.