Documentation or knowledge?
- / -
Originally appeared in 1973 as part of Toward
a Concept Inventory. Also published under the title "Texts
or Concepts: Documentation or Knowledge?" in International Associations,
1974, pp. 205-208 and in a revised
as "Knowledge-Representation in a Computer-Supported Environment"
in in International Classification. 4, 1977, No.2, pp. 76 - 81.
1. The Documentation Problem
It is the stated goal of the UNISIST World Science Information System to facilitate
the "unimpeded exchange of published or publishable scientific information and
data amongst scientists in all countries". Its concern is therefore with the
extremely large number of documents and not with the relatively limited
number of original conceptual entities formulated therein. Unfortunately,
the UNISIST Study does not distinguish between documentation, information and
Briefly, documents pose a physical handling, transfer and filing problem
(which may be eased by reproduction at a distance). Information consists of
signs which can be read, transferred, manipulated and filed electronically.
They function as symbols of units of human knowledge, but only during the short-duration
process of being read for meaning. Knowledge transfer depends on the ability
of the momentary psychological system "sign and reader" to generate an unambiguous,
coherent and consistent meaning in the mind of the reader, and conversely to
convert a distinct meaning or concept into a suitable sign which can be interpreted
with equal ease by another reader. Information, in the form of signs. can he
read without resulting in the transfer of Knowledge and particularly of the
knowledge intended (e.g. undecipherable hieroglyphic writing can be "read" without
knowledge transf er) .
The Study does not recognize that the period covered b the proposed system
is one in which increasingly, it is almost- impossible for the decision-maker
or researcher to determine what information from which discipline is "relevant"
"...how is a practitioner of any one discipline to know in a particular case
if another discipline is better equipped to handle the problem than is he?
It would be rare indeed if a representative of any one of these disciplines
did not feel that his approach to a particular organizational problem would
be very fruitful, if not the most fruitful..." (R.L. Ackoff, Systems, organizations,
and interdisciplinary research.)
If he attempts to order all the relevant documents (or even subscribes to the
appropriate abstracting service), the purchase or transport costs will be prohibitive
(except to a small elite); if he waits for all the relevant information, it
will be too late for him to make a useful decision (61); if he gets all the
relevant information in the form it currently takes, he will have neither the
time, the training, nor the inclina tion to read it all; and if he reads and
comprehends it all, he will not have the time or the ability to convey his understanding
to those whose support he must obtain to carry a vote on the matter or, ultimately,
to the man in the street.
"Consider this dilemma: while our technological abilities to generate and
disseminate potentially useful data have increased manyfold in the past few
years, man's physical capacity to register and to process potentially
informative data has probably increased very little, if indeed at all. The
sheer volume of data that crosses the typical executive's desk today should
serve to spotlight the inadequacies of the education and development of our
acquisition strategies and practices. But no gain in ability could
offset the widening gap between the exponentially-increasing quantity of data
available for consumption and man's very limited capacity for acquiring and
proces- sing useful informational) (62)
It is questionable, in view of present trends, whether knowledge transfer
can continue to be effectively accomplished primarily via document transfer.
The United Nations is potentially the most significant institution in existence
and is at a vital nexus of multidisciplinary, international knowledge transfer
- which it currently accomplishes via documents (63). And yet it has a documentation
problem (which in a sense is equivalent to that of many, if not most, other
large organizations and disciplines):
"This issue has been repeatedly recognized by the General Assembly, the
Economic and Social Council, the Joint Inspection Unit and nearly a dozen
of other UN bodies as one which directly affects the functioning of the UN.
Suffice it here to note that in 1970, the UN, both in New York and Geneva,
produced nearly a million page documentation in all languages. The massive
volume of documentation produced by the UN prompted a former President of
the General Assembly, Mr Lester B. Pearson of Canada, to remark that "the
United Nations is drowning in its own words and suffocating in its own documentation."
The Joint Inspection Unit stated recently in its report submitted to the present
General Assembly session that" the inspectors do not hesitate to say that
the point of saturation has now been reached and indeed overstepped." (64)
The last quote in fact continues with the significant phrase "and that the
law of diminishing returns is taking over...Beyond strictly financial considerations,
therefore ... the future usefulness of the Organization may well hinge on its
ability and determination to set once and for all, and strictly enforce a reasonable
but drastically reduced ceiling to the volume of documentation its various bodies
call for and its services produce" (65).
One is not exposed to alternative hierarchies of conceptual nexuses linked
directly or indirectly to more distant nexuses from which relevant knowledge
may be obtained. (There are no "heights" in documentation systems - the general
is filed with the particular, cf. the treatment of documents with an interdisciplinary
emphasis.) The potential value of a knowledge-oriented information system as
an active stimulus for creative social change and problem- solving may even
be directly proportional to its ability to draw attention to the existence of
established relationships of low probability (i.e. low entropy) between concept
nexuses. This is not a criterion of document information systems where the emphasis
is - for cost reasons - on facilitating access to those documents which are
most probably relevant in terms of demand frequency.
Shuffling documents and signs might facilitate the transfer of meaning and
knowledge between those who could identify the representative of the group whom
a particular set of meanings could be consistently and unambiguously attached
to the signs. But even within that group, advances in knowledge and reconceptualization
have to be carefully related to the original set of meanings. However, making
the documents and signs of that group available to other "outside" groups would
only introduce "noise" and confusion. A knowledge-oriented information
system would be needed to avoid such confusion and facilitate fruitful interaction
between different schools of thought within the social sciences.
2. Knowledge Representation
The ideal "information" system in a given academic field has been sketched
out by the U.S. National Academy of Science Committee on Information in the
Behavioural Sciences (under the chairmanship of David Easton) as the "computer
analogue of the available, intelligent, and informed colleague". There have
been many reports on the improvement and integration of information systems
and it would be futile and inappropriate to comment on them here. There seems,
however, to have been little mention of what might be termed a "knowledge-representation"
In parallel columns below, an attempt is made to clarify the implications
of this distinction by comparing the functioning of a hypothetical knowledgeoriented
system, now technically feasible, with the current approach. The intention is
not to imply that the former should replace the latter but rather that the former
offers various means of avoiding some of the key problems faced by the latter
- the two are however complementary. The distinction is basically between a
synthesis or atomisation in the handling of information.
|| Document/Information System
|| Knowledge-representation System
|| Index tends to be based on simple hierarchy
or alphabetic listing of subject, author and title, which can be handled
on catalogue cards.
|| "Index" constitutes a complex network
giving a representation of entities and relationships and the dynamics of
any points under debate, which can only be handled by multidimensional computer
|| Users want documents; the index is a
temporary inconvenience to gain access to the document.
|| Users want access to the "network index"
which represents the needed items of knowledge and their relationships;
documents are a temporary inconvenience only used if it is necessary to
re-examine data and detailed arguments justifying the entities and relationships
incorporated. (Document access is a secondary problem for which a documentation
system may be used.)
|| Access to knowledge via documents means multiple
reproduction and transfer of documents to a variety of libraries
where they may or may not be used.
|| Access to knowledge is direct and does not
require reproduction and
on transfer of documents. (Only one copy of the document justifying the
amendment need exist on microfiche so that copies need only be prepared
when the data and arguments must be re-examined in detail.)
|| Documentation system is embarrassed when faced
with obtaining "ephemeral" or "phantom" material which has not been
made commercially available through the few standard channels.
|| See 3.
|| Out-o f-date, rejected. low quality,
false, old documents are retained in the system and indexed with no index
indication of their status.
|| Out-of-date, rejected, false, etc. entities
or relationships may be eliminated from the system by listing them on paper
(or other "documents") with the bibliographical source from which they were
obtained (i.e. they are available if required but do not clog the system)
|| Only the knowledge held in the documents physically
available is accessible. The index only notes the documents held in the
documentation centre in question.
|| All knowledge is on-line, although the supporting
documents may not be physically accessible.
|| Alternative concepts or contradictory
evidence can be conveniently ignored in a document or textbook without too
much risk - particularly where the counter argument comes from another discipline
(or a school of thought publishing in a different language).
|| .Alternative concepts, relationships
or contradicting evidence are immediately forced on one's attention even
in the case of relationships linking to other disciplines.
|| Interdisciplinary links are ignored
if the author has no interest in
| Interdisciplinary links are already
held in position whether the author wants to ignore them or not.
|| Different styles of documents are produced
on the same topic for research, education, public information, program management,
policy making, etc., purposes. The same material is repeated, with some
extensions and some omissions, for each audience. This leads to a "spastic"
or "aphasic" response to new situations, by different portions of society.
The entities and relationships entered on the basis of research insights
are also used for other purposes. Instead of producing different documents
and reprocessing the insights, different "filters" are used in presenting
or displaying the entities and relationships to different audiences. In
this way, each new research insight is immediately incorporated into each
other form of knowledge-representation each portion of society works from
the same data base. (Problems registered by non-research bodies are immediately
evident as a challenge to research.)
In this way if an element of knowledge represented cannot be understood,
the user merely calls for a new method of representation (of the same knowledge)
possibly using isomorphs (or even analogies) from a domain with which he
is familiar. (At any point he can move into a programmed learning mode and
work from simple representations.)
|| The documentation system does not permit panoramic
summary of any permanent representation of knowledge in a particular
domain. Each verbal summary extant at a particular moment is under criticism
and subject to reserve from different schools of thought within the discipline.
In this important respect a document arising from a single group of authors
can never contain the totality of views in a domain of knowledge. Only the
non-concretized interaction between a succession of documents approximates
to it. These invisible qualifiers on any document are a feature of the "collective
mentality" of the members of the discipline. The knowledge of the discipline
at any moment is very much in (and between) the minds of its members rather
than on paper or in a row of books.
The forum of academic debate is concretized as a scattering of journals
and other documents. There is little interaction between the journals but
the debate is somewhat summarized in a scattering of abstracts in which
the contents index gives some indication of the interventions on related
| Each entity, link and qualification is indicated
in the knowledge representation system. In effect one "layer" of the "collective
mentality" of a discipline is rendered visible. Each modification to knowledge
in the domain can be entered on an hour-by-hour basis.
The knowledge representation system constitutes a thinking forum in which
the juxtaposition of relevant ideas from all sources is maximized. The researcher
is exposed to a pattern of theoretical formulations in the process of being
continually improved, and to which he can contribute. A dozen or more specialists
in a particular field (the "invisible college" for that topic) can contribute
simultaneously to work on ideas being written on one memo pad via electronic
dialogue support systems which help them to respond to each other's ideas
(even if they are a continent apart) with a rapidity that allows each of
them to maintain thinking momentum. Even in such a rapid debate the paternity
of each emerging formulation is identified and registered. (This mode of
operation should be compared with some discussions between academics interested
in the same topic in which progress is frustrated because if someone thinks
of a good idea he wants to "publish" it (to gain credit) before contributing
to the thinking momentum of his colleagues - this may take months.)
|| Thinking momentum is constantly inter
rupted when access to new documents is required. (Long delays, 2- 3 months,
are normal; 50 months or more from initiation of research to appearance
|| Thinking momentum is maintained since
the essence of any new domains of knowledge is always accessible -- all
the links and entities are there (delays are measured in seconds).
|| Research is conducted primarily using
12. documents as a stimulus to creativity.
|| Research is conducted primarily using the knowledge-representation
structure (i.e. the graphical representation) as a stimulus to creativity.
|| Author has "published" when document
13. is in circulation and "available"; index entries of little significance
|| Author has "published" when the appropriate
knowledge structure in the "index" has been modified; incorporation in "index"
(through a terminal) is of highest priority for the author.
|| Author's status, credibility, pride
and interest are associated with visible documents on library shelves. The
documentation problem is aggravated by the "publish or perish" code which
governs much of academic life. Unless an academic produces a document he
is "invisible" and loses status.
|| Author's status, credibility, pride
and interest are associated with the visible entities and links in the graphic
representation accessible to all. By switching emphasis to the specific
entities and relationships which the academic has formulated, successfully,
confirmed or criticized - his status is determined by the bonds and entities
with which he is associated. Each of his contributions is "visible" until
it is superseded and is not subject to the vagaries of the documentation
|| Each new document must carry a lot of verbal
packaging to provide a context within which innovative elements are
introduced. There is
no guarantee that the rephrasing (necessary for status and copyright
reasons) of earlier arguments will constitute an improvement.
| The author need only enter the specific entities
of relationships which constitute his innovation. (Since the academic's
status is bound up with his specific modifications to the knowledge structure
and not the verbalizations held in a document, the problem of adequate verbalization
may be handled separately. Hopefully a limited number of skilled verbal
presentations, from a minimum number of different perspectives and literary
styles, could be constantly updated by professional writers using the best
verbal arguments by any appropriate academics where appropriate.)
|| The direction of research is governed
16. in part by shifting patterns of credi bility and status. These are merely
evident in print but are controlled by an ongoing informal dialogue centred
upon the elders of the dis cipline who legitimate consideration of particular
entities and relation ships.
|| It is quite evident which issues are currently
under debate and the manner in which the demise of a set of entities and
relationships will weaken the status of a whole set of dependent elements.
Ideally the system would also act as a continually updated voting board
for each element, providing an opportunity for members of the profession
to indicate their approval.
|| The key figures in a discipline and the relationship
between their spheres of influence are unclear.
|| The "luminaries" in a particular discipline
are all visible together with the relationship between their spheres of