Academics like to collect authorships. This is our Monopoly money, our brownie points, our virtual fan club, the features in our cap. We check our Scholar page obsessively and mud-wrestle over order of authorship. Who should be a first author, a second author, or a last author? In fact, the question is larger : What does being an author on a paper mean?
Ask 10 academics, and nine of them will say, “intellectual contribution.” Authors are people who make intellectual contributions to the papers. Those who propose novel ideas, identify interesting patterns, shape the work. This makes some sense. However, if this is the case, what about algorithms? Algorithms make increasing contributions to work. They crunch numbers, construct models, make and evaluate predictions, transcribe text and identify linguistic features, analyze data and text, etc. So, when should algorithms be co-authors?
At the 2017 Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention in Philadelphia, the panel “Anthropocene Digital Humanities” features speakers Roger Whitson (Washington State University), Amanda Starling Gould (affiliation), Shane Denson (affiliation), Helen J. Burgess (affiliation), and Anna Coluthon (independent scholar). By all rights, Coluthon is a copanelist, registered presenter, and collaborator with the other scholars on the panel. “She” is, however, a bot.
Though Coluthon can be found on both Twitter and Facebook, she is the first nonhuman member of the MLA. Through the support of MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal, Anna Coluthon was permitted to participate in a panel and be listed on the conference program—a privilege granted to members, with the exception of a few others who are granted waivers based on their location in another field and regular attendance at a conference other than the MLA.
I rely on machines all the time. I consult with them when deciding where to eat, for directions, and what books to read. I also benefit from using machines and algorithms when writing academic papers. Google Scholar returns relevant papers for my literature search, the algorithms in SPSS run my statistics, and Mendeley keeps me from going crazy when compiling my references. All of these elements are critical to the writing task, but they could all be done through another method. Given infinite time, I could compile the same literature search by staying up to date on my journal reading; theoretically, I could do my statistics by hand; and I’ve written reference sections by hand enough times to know that it’s terrible but possible. An open question is, as machine input becomes more advanced, at what point do I stop viewing algorithms as tools and instead view them as collaborators? When do their contributions begin to be intellectual? Determining when machines have become intelligent is not a new question, of course. In the 1950s, Alan Turing suggested that a machine would be designated as intelligent when a human judge could not distinguish a conversation with a fellow human from one with a machine.
Currently, the academic field in North America is in the midst of an ongoing crisis regarding adjunct labor. Simply put, there are more adjuncts than there are tenure track positions, meaning that adjuncts can only find work in a precariat capacity. This has an impact on the larger economies of cities and other spaces, because adjuncts do not have the financial security to buy homes, have children, or make the major purchases that contribute to local economies. In turn, this issue is a reflection of global economic drivers such as rising automation, longer life expectancy, and diminishing full-time work in favor of contract labor.
Concurrent and related to this issue is the aforementioned rise in automation. As algorithms and other forms of artificial intelligence are contributing more and more across all fields. Academia is no different. Algorithms are necessary contributors to computer modeling and other forms of research, and, increasingly, they are contributing to research in novel and distinctive ways that cannot be reproduced by humans.
Doron Zeilberger is a mathematician who co-authors papers with his computer, which he has named Shalosh Ekhad. He’s even created a website for Ekhad, where the computer describes itself as Zeilberger’s “servant” and gloats about the times when journalists have mistaken it for a human, called it a professor, and quoted extensively from it as if it were an ordinary author on Zeilberger’s papers. Though Zeilberger presents this collaboration as a joke on Ekhad’s site, the mathematician is deeply serious about the idea that he could not be doing his work without the aid of a computer, and therefore the machine deserves credit as an author. The machine is listed as first author on several of Zeilberger’s papers.
As space tourism and colonization becomes a possibility for certain segments of the global population, knowledge sharing and preservation, as well as institutional memory, become an issue for extra-terrestrial spaces. This problem takes many forms: NASA has to design modules and interfaces that can be used by multiple generations of astronauts, for example. But what about books? As humans leave their planet, they will doubtless want to take at least some of their books with them. And while most of these books will need to be digital during the initial migration, physical books will have different requirements on different planets.
The knock on my door was faint and I could barely hear it. A short person entered. White, male, lazy beard, thick glasses, a lab coat.
“What would you like to drink?” I asked. He nodded, nothing. Just keep my theory alive.
I opened my EverNote and started writing down. I knew it had to be serious. People, animals, artifacts–these can be saved. But theories? This was much harder. “Someone is trying to kill my theory,” the old person continued, and I listened to his story.
“Thirty years ago I developed a theory about distance learning,” he said. “I emphasized the need to maintain a learning community and not to settle for lectures. I suggested way to foster interaction. People loved it. It showed that distance education can work. I thought that we changed education forever.
It’s here somewhere hidden on purpose
Lack of curiosity leaves information hidden
I think I know everything. Not
Thirty years experience trapped inside
Jenni Rankin of Annual Reviews said in the small data session today that Annual Reviews was founded in the 1930s to combat the problem of information overload confronting researchers. The volume of scholarly knowledge continues to increase, and despite any number of discovery and digestion tools invented, discarded, reinvented, and reinvented since then (and before), scholars today are in no better situation. There is too much to read and not enough time to read it all. Carol Tenopir and Don King have done good work in studying the habits of researchers. More recently, Simon Inger has published a study on how researchers discover services. (There was a whole session about that here at the conference that I missed. The report is available for purchase.)
“Yes, but do you know how to access the information?” asked the librarian peevishly as he strolled down the darkened corridors with a flashlight. “This isn’t some voice-activated robot you’re talking to…you have to read it.”
“I don’t understand,” Charles said bewildered. “I thought the Citadel of Hidden Knowledge meant that it contained all the secrets humanity had collected over the millennium. The visad said that any question could be answered quickly and easily but only in person. I’ve traveled over 43 million miles to be here!”
In many scholarly fields, there are certain terms of art that people use to describe their work. These terms are often unknown to people outside the discipline, and learning them is part of the ritual of joining the pursuit of whatever field it is, whether cultural studies or molecular biology. I have been exposed to far more of these terms than most, because I began my career as interdisciplinary scholar in a humanities/social science field, and became a science and technology journalist who has covered a number of unrelated specialties.
Here, in no particular order, are a list of undocumented terms of art that scholars use in their everyday practices but rarely in published literature.
Conversations about the future of scholarly publishing at “Sprint Beyond the Book” explored the nature of the book in 2016 and a wishlist of features for the book a decade from now. The team that gathered for the sprint insisted on the need to retain the primary functions of books as intellectual, culturally dangerous, and accessible methods of communication with new audiences and generations to come. Rather than being conceived as single-authored monographs, the book of the 2026 would facilitate collaborative conversation. The book of the future would be a living document, preserving multiple drafts while facilitating space for post-publication peer review to proliferate through comments, marginalia, and other apparati that are part of the book. Designed for he broadest range of human users, the book would be accessible and multimodal, providing a navigable user experience in an open access environment.
On November 15, 2045, Elise graduated from high school and became an academic. She planted her first book in the backyard, next to the tree where her childhood swing dangled from frayed rope that still remembered the shape of her 9 year-old hands in summer, clutching and sweating as she counted every leaf overhead. Thanks to her acute powers of observation, and the lucky proximity of this relatively undisturbed portion of forest ecosystem, Elise was an internationally renowned expert on the life cycle of the leaf cutter ant.