Over at Crooked Timber, Eszter has a post on physicists doing social network theory , which raises the issue of ‘reinventing the wheel’. In this case, the physicists are breathlessly announcing results that sociologists have known about for years.
That’s obviously silly, but I don’t think reinventing the wheel is entirely a bad thing. Whenever I start on a new research topic, I like to spend a bit of time thinking about the issues on the basis of first principles, before I start reading the literature to see what others have done. The benefit of this is not that you’re likely to discover anything fundamentally new, but that it makes it easier to see what is central to the literature and what’s merely the accidental result of its development history (Professor X, the founder of the field, stressed assumption A, so all subsequent writers pay homage to it, and so on). Of course, this is only useful if you can subsequently engage with the existing literature.
My short summary “By all means have a go at reinventing the wheel, but don’t try to patent it”
fn1. Apart from anything else, this guy has already done it
Update As James Farrell reminds me, I’m reinventing my own wheel here.