reactionary science

Yesterday I twitted that the current discussion on healthcare IT seem to ignore 30+ years of research by the IS community. For example, Nicholas Carr wrote:

“There is a widespread faith, beginning at the very top of our government, that pouring money into computerization will lead to big improvements in both the cost and quality of health care. As this study shows, those assumptions need to be questioned – or a whole lot of taxpayer money may go to waste. Information technology has great promise for health care, but simply dumping cash into traditional commercial systems and applications is unlikely to achieve that promise – and may backfire by increasing costs further.”

There is nothing really new in his comments. What he is observing is probably one of the most well researched topics in our field. I felt that people who work on healthcare IT should pick up some of the classic works in our field to avoid many of the mistakes that many firms that tried to implement IT in the past made. As Brian Butler commented,

“The simple reality is that healthcare is 10-20 years behind with regard to IT and IS management. While there are differences – much of what we teach undergraduates and MS students is significant insight to them….

In response to my posting, however, couple of my colleagues commented that the problem is really the journals of the field. For example, Kevin Desouza wrote:

“it is a shame when a field that is supposed to study IS has a 2 year backlog on average in terms of publishing information. We do not practice what we preach”

While I do agree with Kevin that it takes too long to get anything published in our journals and that some of the delay can be removed by using information technology more effectively, I am not sure if the time lag in the publication process is indeed the source of the problem. I doubt the current problem will go away even if we have real-time publication mechanism for scholarly works. I wonder perhaps it has to do with the way we think about the role of social science in general. The issue of relevance is not particularly constrained to the field of information systems; instead, it permeates in most social science fields as Flyvbjerg makes abundantly clear in his book, “Making Social Science Matter”.

Much of the social science in its current form is reactionary in its nature. As Dick Boland has said many times, social scientists became “historians of the recent past and gear students up to reproduce it”. Instead of creating new and better realities, we are busy reacting to what has already happened. Whether it happened two months ago or two years ago, we will be still busy documenting the recent past as long as we follow this reactionary mode of science. What is necessary, then, is not just eliminating the lag time. Instead, we need to shift our attention from documenting the recent past to imagining new future. When rocket scientists built rockets to go to Moon, they did not document how someone else went to Moon. They made it happen. They built new rockets. They designed the new lunar lander. They built new organization structures to support their work. They invented the relational database. They were not reacting. They were acting and pro-acting. The world can tolerate two years of time lag, if what we produce are theoretical, empirical, and instrumental tools that can indeed make this world a better place. What we need is scholarly works that lead to new human actions.

Of course, this is not a new idea. Late Herbert A. Simon has argued for the sciences of the artificial. More recently, Law and Urry (2004), in their article, “Enacting the social” (Economy ad Society, 33:3, 390-410), so eloquently argued that “social inquiry and its methods are productive: they (help to) make social realities and social worlds. They do not simply describe the world as it is, but also enact it.” They further suggest that social scientists need to re-imagine themselves and their methods in order to better deal with the fleeting, the distributed, the multiple, the sensory, the emotional, and the kinaesthetic. With these, and many other efforts underway, I hope we will be able to make our scholarly work matter more.

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2 thoughts on “reactionary science

  1. I like the post, and I of all people think the publication process is too lengthy to be practical in our field. My question, however, is whether the team that went to the moon were scientists or engineers? I think the problem is that we – as a field – only value fully formed contributions, that by definition take a long time to develop. I’d almost rather us value conference-level contributions (like CS) that provide insight without necessarily rising to the level of rigor required of A-journal publications. An idea that is 3/4 developed and timely, may be more valuable than one that is fully formed but years late

  2. Jerry, I agree that the publication process is too long and we can make it shorter. Your Wiki paper on MISQ and the process that you went through seems to be a good example of various efforts that are underway.
    On rocket “scientists”… that is a good point. But, we call them rocket scientists, not rocket engineers, don’t we? Simon includes engineering as a part of artificial science in the same way he includes management, law, education, etc.

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