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Hypermedia Online Publishing: the Transformation of the Scholarly Journal

2.5.5 Paradigm shifts in science

In the 1960s, the American physicist and historian Thomas Kuhn was studying the work of Isaac Newton and became interested in the way in which Newton's views about the motion of bodies had replaced the previous understanding of the scientific community of the time. Newton's insight (largely still used today, although modified by Einstein's later work in the field of curvature of space-time) was that motion was a deterministic approach. Things moved because they were subject to predictable natural forces like gravity and friction. Prior to this, most people's views about motion were largely based on ideas traceable back to Aristotle. Things moved because they 'wanted to'.

Kuhn [Kuhn, 1970] suggested that the replacement of the Aristotelian worldview with the Newtonian worldview should be regarded as a scientific revolution . A particular way of viewing things within a discipline is a paradigm , and the revolution replaces one dominant paradigm with another. Such a paradigm shift will usually not occur unless there are significant problems with the current paradigm. Usually, the weight of evidence against a paradigm will build up and the tensions between the dominant paradigm and the body of understanding in the discipline will become apparent. If a new paradigm becomes available which has at least the same explanatory power as the existing paradigm and which resolves the current problems, the majority of scholars in the discipline will move to switch allegiance fairly quickly.

A good example of such a paradigm shift from earlier this century in the field of geology is the rise in acceptance of the theory of continental drift (now known to be caused by the mechanism of plate tectonics) which was largely the result of ideas first proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1910 [Wegener, 1962]. This was enormously controversial at the time and was still not generally accepted in the mid-1960's [Gould, 1991, p. 160] but is now received wisdom within the field.

Bruce Morton [Morton, 1997] has argued that a similar paradigm shift is necessary in the system of scholarly communication. In this case, the shift would be from the existing system of print based journals to one based on electronic dissemination. Edward Valauskas argues that because of the deficiencies of text on a screen versus text on paper, such a paradigm shift will never happen. Instead, "the future will be rich in print, electronic and mixed media for scholars" [Valauskas, 1997]. The notion of paradigmatic shifts has also been applied to conceptualisations of the broader information economy [Braman, 1995].

The notion of paradigm shifts is a useful one, but much of its explanatory power is also contained within the theory of punctuated equilibrium. Punctuated equilibrium also has the advantage of linking more directly to the ecological framework of Kaufer and Carley. For this reason, paradigm shifts were not used directly as a theoretical framework.

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