Knowledge Creation and Dissemination: A Brief History

In an early draft-version of this book, the present section was called 'A Brief History of Science'. Yet, we ran into several problems with this heading. Firstly, there is a singularity in the English language that differentiates between knowledge creation that is concerned with the rules of the natural world (science) and knowledge creation that is concerned with the human condition (humanities). Throughout the preparation of this book we constantly ran into this dilemma and we would like to take the opportunity to tell you that whenever we talk about science we mean any organized form of knowledge creation (see chapter Open Science and the Three Cultures: Expanding Open Science to all Domains of Knowledge Creation). Secondly, science is often understood as the product created by a scientists. And a scientists is understood as someone with a full-time job at a university or a research institute. Yet, new forms of collaboration reach far beyond our institutional understanding of doing research, which brings us to certain dissent.

As such we labeled the section 'Knowledge Creation and Dissemination'. Knowledge creation and its dissemination are two sides of the same coin— knowledge does not impact on society if it is unable to disseminate (Merton 1993). Throughout history we can see that breakthroughs in knowledge creation went hand in hand with breakthroughs in its dissemination. In turn, dissemination is not only bound to technological changes but also societal changes such as freedom of speech or the Renaissance. In large, the present book is a compendium that presents current changes that we see in knowledge creation and dissemination. Actually, many chapters of this book challenge our traditional understanding of how scientific knowledge should be disseminated. Moreover, as of today, researchers' views on how knowledge creation is changing differ drastically in many aspects. And it is likely that our understanding differs from your understanding. As such, all we want to offer in this book is a comprehensive overview on what is changing in the world of knowledge creation, which foundations are being laid today, and what might become essential in the future.

The history of human knowledge is closely linked to the history of civilization—one could even argue that the history of civilization is in large parts based on knowledge creation and its dissemination. In prehistoric times, knowledge was passed from one generation to the next one orally or by showing certain techniques. This mainly applied to basic everyday tasks such as hunting, fire making, manufacturing clothes, or gathering nutritious foods. The creation of this knowledge was not yet structured and it was not recorded, except for occasional drawings like cave paintings. The drastic change in knowledge creation was the invention of a writing system. Roughly at the same time, agriculture came to life. These two inventions combined laid the groundwork for what we today consider civilization. Civilization allowed for the division of labor and hence individuals began to specialize—knowledge creation accelerated. The researcher as a profession concerned with the creation of knowledge made his debut in ancient Greece. Scientists like Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Socrates, or Archimedes wrote their observations down, taught others, and created knowledge that is still relevant roughly 2,500 years later. Disciplines as we know them today formed many centuries later and as such ancient scientists were usually philosophers, mathematicians, and physicists in one. Similar developments were noticeable in other societies as well. In China for instance thinkers like Confucius, Laozi, or Sun Tzu were concerned with question similar to those raised in ancient Greece.

During the following centuries, religion played a major role in the development of knowledge creation. Beliefs about certain essential questions such as how was the earth created? where do diseases come from? or what happens after death? impeded scientific advances in many fields and as such slowed down overall knowledge creation. Not very surprisingly, the middle Ages are often considered to be a dark age, in which rational thinking was prohibited. With the invention of the printing press and the beginning of the Renaissance in the 17th century, research slowly emancipated itself from religion. Slowly meaning that it took the church until 1992 to rehabilitate Galileo for his outrageous claim that the sun might be the center of our universe.

During the Renaissance, considerable amounts of knowledge were created by a few polymaths—more or less a small group of outstanding thinkers involved in all kinds of questions ranging from biology, to art, to engineering—hence the label 'Renaissance man'. Da Vinci, for instance, developed machines related to today's helicopters, analyzed water, clouds, and rain, painted some of the most important paintings of mankind, and did considerable research on anatomy. Goethe wrote, did research in botany, and was in dispute with Newton over questions concerning optics and color.

What we consider modern science came to life in the 17th century when knowledge creation was both, professionalized and institutionalized. The number of scientists started to skyrocket—from a few polymath during the renaissance to over a million scientists in 1850. This growth did not slow down over the following 150 years and today we can globally count roughly 100 million people involved in science. More and more disciplines formed and scientists became professional specialists in tiny fields rather than experts in general knowledge.

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