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Forgotten and undiscovered knowledge
In the latest of our series of articles commemorating the 60th anniversary of Journal of Documentation, Jack Meadows comments on one his own early papers, dealing with aspects of the study of scientific communication through citation analysis. He notes the phenomenon of publications that can lie neglected for many years, only to be rediscovered and gain a new significance. The initial work of Gregor Mendel, which established genetics as a scientific study, is quoted as a well-known example.
Mendel’s studies of the hybridisation of peas were first reported at meetings of the Natural History Society of Brònn (now Brno in the Czech Republic) in 1865, and published as a paper in the transactions of that society in the following year. They were then largely ignored until the turn of the century, when several biologists almost simultaneously rediscovered them.
It is intriguing to speculate why the contents of this paper, which were later seen to have such significance, were almost entirely ignored. Atkins (2003, p. 47), in his magisterial survey of the great ideas of science suggests several reasons:
the results did not make clear any rational basis of hybridisation;
Mendel himself, disappointed in his failure to create a new species, lost interest in the topic;
the author was regarded as an “intrusive amateur” in the field of biology;
his status as an Augustinian monk led to distrust;
his use of mathematics, albeit relatively simple, caused confusion; and
the relevance of the work to the mechanism of inheritance was not appreciated.
The last point is most interesting to the information scientist and documentalist. The identification of relevant knowledge which has in some way been “forgotten”, “overlooked” or “ignored”, so that it may be linked to other knowledge to create something new, is one of the major challenges for systems of information and documentation. This is the issue identified by Swanson in his initial 1986 exposition of “undiscovered public knowledge” (Swanson, 1986), which has led to his development of systems for identifying such linkages. The idea has been followed up by others, including Beghtol (1995), for concepts of documentation itself.
There is, of course, another sense in which knowledge may be, more literally, forgotten. As the technologies of knowledge change, it cannot be assumed that valuable information will be carried across in some way. This was brought home to me over 20 years, during a comparative study of retrieval of information on hazardous effects of chemical substances (Bawden and Brock, 1982). One piece of important information was found only in an out-dated printed reference book, whose survival and availability was largely a matter of chance.
The identification of these kinds of undiscovered and forgotten knowledge, and the devising of means for assessing their relevance, is likely to be major challenge for documentation over the next decades.
Atkins, P. (2003), Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Bawden, D. and Brock, A.M. (1982), “Chemical toxicology searching: a collaborative evaluation, comparing information resources and searching techniques”, Journal of Information Science, Vol. 5 No. 1, pp. 3–18
Beghtol, C. (1995), “‘Facets’ as interdisciplinary undiscovered public knowledge”, Journal of Documentation, Vol. 51 No. 3, pp. 194–224
Swanson, D.R. (1986), “Undiscovered public knowledge”, Library Quarterly, Vol. 56 No. 2, pp. 103–18