Beware the IKEA Effect

The IKEA Effect describes a psychological bias through which people tend to place higher value on a product if they expended some effort creating it. The name is from a study showing that people valued furniture more highly if they assembled it themselves, even if they admittedly did a poor job. The effect was reduced if the products were not finished, or if participants built and then destroyed their creations.

I try to watch for biases, and this one is especially insidious, in that it likely applies to ideas. This would imply that the more we work toward completing something we came up with ourselves, the better of an idea we are likely to think it is. I have tried to apply this newfound knowledge to a software architecture I’ve been working on for a few years now. The results of my informal internal analysis were revealing and humbling. I’ve been dealing increasingly with people that don’t seem to understand the value of some of the more esoteric points of this system. While that’s not particularly unusual for scientific research, or necessarily bad, I have decided to take a fresh look at the various aspects of this project, and look for validation along the way.

Increasing access to scholarly research

Last week the White House issued a memorandum directing federal agencies that fund more than $100 million in research to create plans for making the studies they fund freely available to the public. The positive responses from both academic publishers and access advocates lead me to believe that the solutions will primarily be some form of author-funded publication of this research, with the fees paid by the funding agencies.

Access to taxpayer funded research has been a sore point with many researchers for years, but the issue gained new visibility following the suicide death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz. Swartz’ case brought into stark relief the conflict between the U.S. government’s responsibility to make taxpayer-funded research available to its citizens, and its need to protect the lucrative industry that exists to publish much of this same research.

Whatever plans are put forward by the various agencies, I would surprised if they acknowledge two realities of publishing today. The first is the growing importance of direct self-publication (i.e. without a publication house involved) in society at large. Academics may be understandably slow to adopt this model for publication of research, but it is likely that a large number of open access journals will arise without the involvement of established academic publishers. Any one that attracts a sufficient number of distinguished scholars could prove successful.

The second factor is the impending obsolescence of print publications, whether paper or electronic. In the humanities, digital technology is quickly becoming the most popular way to publish research. As humanists become more familiar with technology (and students read less), interactivity will follow quickly and the linear narrative will likely fade. Science research has been ignoring the man behind the curtain for decades now. The litmus test for published scientific results is supposed to be whether they can be reliably repeated, but very few conventional journal publications include (or can include) more than a vague description of the data, and even less information concerning the apparatus and software codes that were used to produce the results.

E-books are already suffering declining sales, as interactive tablets and media rise quickly. The future of academic publishing is likely to be very different from its present.