Information Systems Journals: Knowledge Castles or Knowledge Gardens? Brian Whitworth

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Over the last decade, atheoretical IS practice has innovated systems like E-bay, wikipedia and MySpace, while IS theory hobbled by rigor has followed behind as best it could. This is not acceptable, as IS research should lead as well as follow industry practice. IS academia must reinvent itself, lest it become a byway on the highway of progress. In the world of ideas as in the physical world, openness to new people, thoughts and options is productive. Academia should be a melting pot of new ideas not a static pool of old ones. Yet innovation without rigor is no better than rigor without innovation, i.e. innovation and rigor are not mutually exclusive alternatives. If electronic publishing disseminates more it needs more critical reviews to maintain quality.

Now is not the time for IS academia to “dig in” and fortify existing theoretical positions. The global information revolution is not over but just beginning. Imagine a world where all information is potentially available, from who made your couch to the heart rate of your sleeping child. What are the risks and opportunities of all health, business, communication and community transactions being kept on an electronic record? An information future presses upon us, and demands technical design decisions today that will impact us in the future. While the Internet’s creators could not have foreseen spam and built the right not to communicate into the architecture (Whitworth & Whitworth, 2004), today we have no such excuse. It is now clear the Internet is a social system as well as a technical one, so social issues are now much more relevant to IS.

One could ask, if electronic knowledge systems have such potential, why don’t they already dominate academic publishing? However the same question could have been asked of the Internet in the years before it reached critical mass. Similarly the issue “Who will pay?” held back Internet development. We now understand the answer is “Everyone”, but then it was not evident. Today we know the Internet does not lose money, it makes it! Likewise to argue that e-journals will not make money as p-journals do is to fail to see their social potential. The Internet was also criticized for having no central control. No-one was in charge, so how could it be reliable? Yet if the Internet were destroyed tomorrow, society would most likely recreate it again the day after. The Internet has social rather than technical reliability. Finally, to suggest that individual journals already have electronic archives again misses the point that social evolutions involve critical masses of millions or billions. We suggest an electronic research archive that will eventually connect all IS, not some IS. The social principle invoked, emergent synergy, is also evident in our social history.

As humanity formed larger social groups, competing tribal warlords gave way to large lawful societies because the latter were more productive (Diamond, 1998). Civilized prosperity arises as non-zero-sum benefits increasingly outweigh zero-sum benefits for larger groups (Wright, 2001). In zero-sum interactions, like war, one side wins and the other loses, while in non-zero sum interactions, like trade, both win. Successful societies combine both benefits, e.g. people in markets compete with like agents (zero-sum), but also follow cooperative standards to make fair trades (non-zero-sum). In general, zero-sum competition strengthens individuals while non-zero-sum cooperation strengthens societies.

Non-zero synergies like trade arise from social interactions, which increase geometrically with group size. In contrast, individual based zero-sum benefits increase arithmetically with group size. Hence non-zero sum benefits become increasingly important for large societies. Scientific research, upon which modern prosperity is based, illustrates the benefits of emergent synergy. If each researcher publishes their knowledge to all others, and as society grows the number of potentially useful synergistic interactions increases astronomically. The benefits of knowledge sharing are a function not only of the number of individual researchers, but also of the number of research network interactions.

Computer power, by connecting millions of people across the world, now enables emergent social synergy on a scale never before seen. The logical conclusion of our social evolution is a global society that connects everyone in the world. We are still a long way from a world community, but today’s Internet exemplifies the potential of emergent synergy, as we each add to it only a little, but take from it all human knowledge. The technology is new, but the social principle is old. The size effect means synergy works better the bigger it is. Successful online businesses like Google and Ebay understand this principle, and follow a business model based as much on public good as competitive conflict, on community not exclusiveness. They benefit everyone, and in doing so benefit themselves. In a similar way, biology now sees a “web of life” (Capra, 1996) as well as the Darwinian view of nature as “red in tooth and claw”, and physics sees quantum entanglement as well as Newtonian deterministic mechanics (Bohm, 1980).

In this spirit, it seems time to upgrade our academic knowledge exchange systems from the closed castle style to that of an open garden or market bazaar. Knowledge gatekeepers would become quality advisors and cultivators rather than suppressors, letting readers themselves decide what they will read. This would be a return to our academic roots, of publishing knowledge freely to all, without fear or favor. We should not think small. IS, straddling as it does other disciplines, is well positioned to build a universal electronic “knowledge port” for all cross-disciplinary knowledge travelers. Let our “specialty” be not this or that, but the interaction of knowledge at the crossroads of technology.

Let us put the emergent synergy lesson of the Internet into practice in our own knowledge exchange systems. Our discipline needs an open electronic archive to better achieve our traditional goals: to better innovate new research, to better influence and educate, to better assess and develop research quality. Emergent synergy means that if we set up a system that everyone uses, it will inevitably succeed. It may change the current power structure, but that is a small price to pay for research progress. An online journal/archive would generate more editor author, reviewer and reader interaction, and less exclusivity would create more involvement. The result would more than a journal, it would be a vibrant online academic community.


Thanks to Paul Gray for a penetrating critique and to Marilyn Tremaine for insightful comments.


Brian Whitworth completed his psychology Masters thesis on the implications of split-brain research for the concept of “Self”, then became the New Zealand Army Senior Psychologist, then a Defense Computer Systems Analyst, then worked on defense Operational Simulations. After “retiring” he designed and wrote the groupware for his doctorate on generating computer-mediated agreement. This sparked an interest in the design and evaluation of “social-technical systems”. His publications have appeared in Small Group Research, Group Decision and Negotiation, THE DATABASE for Advances in Information Systems, Communications of the AIS, IEEE Computer, Behavior and Information Technology (BIT), and Communications of the ACM. Topics include generating online agreement, voting before discussing, a cognitive three-process model of online interaction, legitimate by design, spam and the social-technical gap and the web of system performance (WOSP). He is now at the Institute of Information and Mathematical Sciences, Massey University (Albany), New Zealand. See

Elizabeth Whitworth is a 2nd year masters student at the HOT lab at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She has a B.S. in HCI from New Jersey Institute of Technology in the U.S., where she developed a strong interest in the personal and social aspects of electronically mediated communication, such as online communities, the development of relationships online, and the novel use of technology by people and groups of people to work towards their (often social) goals. Her master's thesis involves communication and collaboration in agile software development teams, and her other interests include social networking, socio-technical systems, patterns, and educational and collaborative technology such as games and wikis.

Karen Patten is a Special Lecturer in the School of Management at New Jersey
Institute of Technology. She teaches telecommunications, information systems,
and computer systems management and technology to undergraduate, graduate, and executive MBA students. Ms. Patten is also a Ph.D. candidate in IS at NJIT
where she is researching enterprise IT management issues. Prior to teaching at
NJIT, Ms. Patten managed technical/strategic planning/deployment for AT&T Bell
Laboratories. She started the first internal telecommunications organization
for AT&T Long Lines prior to divestiture. Ms. Patten holds a B.S. degree in
Economics from Purdue University, an M.S. degree in Traffic Engineering (Civil
Engineering) from the University of Minnesota, and an Executive Certificate in
Strategic Planning from Indiana University. She is also a member of the
Society of Women Engineers, NJ Society for Information Management, the
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the United States
Association of Small Business and Entrepreneurship


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