Is There a Name for This?

I'm writing about observations in some discipline -- in my case, law, but it could be anything else -- that are novel, nonobvious, and useful, and thus likely to be helpful to others, but that are pretty small and unambitious, to the point that many serious scholars wouldn't trouble themselves to write a scholarly article about them. The trouble is that because the observations don't get memorialized in media that future researchers will likely search (they might get blogged, but they won't be findable through LEXIS and WESTLAW), others will have to reinvent them. And, worst of all, the original inventor won't get that all-important extra citation to add to his citation count.

My tentative name for them is "micro-discoveries," in part because the piece in which I'm discussing this labels various facets of a scholar's life as "discovering," "disseminating," and "doing." But I'm not wild about the name, and if there's already an existing name -- perhaps from other disciplines -- I'd love to hear it. If you know such a name, please post it in the comments. Thanks!

SAC (mail):
4.19.2006 3:13pm
Morgan Price (mail) (www):
I have two questions: How is a micro-discovery different from the least publishable unit? And don't legal scholars use google?
4.19.2006 3:15pm
Anderson (mail) (www):

(No help, but I observe that the English "discipline" has a journal, Notes &Queries, devoted to just the kind of thing you're talking about. Anyone know what's become of it in the Age of the Internets?)
4.19.2006 3:16pm
James Lindgren (mail):

This is not what you are looking for, but Philip Hamburger has a nice article in Notre Dame on "trivial rights." The Framers discussed trivial rights (eg, the right to wear a hat, the right to sleep on your left side), and had some interesting things to say on why they weren't specificantly mentioned otherwise.
4.19.2006 3:19pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Legal scholars, I suspect, rarely use google to find useful legal theories or arguments; they use WESTLAW and LEXIS, which is generally more convenient and more selective (since it focuses on legal scholarship).
4.19.2006 3:27pm
Dave G:
In engineering and business terminology, these aren't too far from what's commonly known as "best practices". Similar to your micro-discoveries, they can often float around quite a while before being codified or widely operationalized, and are surprisingly difficult to teach others. Often, they are just small things that sound like common sense, until you realize they aren't all that common. Blogs are actually a pretty good way of getting them across (at least to the sort of people who read blogs).
4.19.2006 3:38pm
John-Paul Pagano (mail) (www):
Can you provide an example, such as whatever gave rise to this post? I understand what you mean, but it's easier to name a thing than an abstract description.
4.19.2006 3:39pm
Roger (mail):
I prefer the term "hacks." Not in the way that some of your co-blogger are referred to, but "hacks" in the way that "hackers" tweak computer systems to make them work better. For example, a publisher named O'Reilly (not to be confused with the commentator who definitely is a "hack") publishes a book of "hacks" of various operating systems or pieces of software. While each hack is hardly revolutionary, they do make life easier.
4.19.2006 3:41pm
Ira B. Matetsky (mail):
I don't have a new suggestion for a new word -- but I hope the group comes up with a good one, because I empathize completely with the situation you describe.
4.19.2006 3:49pm
Bryan DB:
de minimis discoveries? Although that might yield too many extraneous hits in a future database search.
4.19.2006 3:51pm
Bob McHenry (mail):
4.19.2006 3:59pm
I thought these kinds of ideas where commonly called "Rules of Thumb", but perhaps this term has fallen from favor -- I always though "best practices" was sort of pretentious.
4.19.2006 3:59pm
Steve P. (mail):
My own personal use of the word 'hack' (as a developer) doesn't lend itself the professor's needs. A hack can be novel or non-obvious, but it's usually shoddy craftsmanship to get something done quickly, often involving presumptions about parameters and lots of conditionals. Basically, among me and my coworkers, a hack is a sometimes necessary but distasteful thing as we code for deadlines.

Anyway, a vote against that bad word.
4.19.2006 4:08pm
CJColucci (mail):
I'd like to see the legal profession give a little more love to these kinds of mini-discoveries. Various bar association journals have articles (with footnotes) about questions so focused, narrow, and genuinely useful to actual lawyers that no law professor would waste time on them. As opposed to much of what passes for scholarship in elite law reviews, which is generally of no use to practitioners -- even in the specialties to which the articles pertain -- and isn't even that interesting in its own terms.
4.19.2006 4:21pm
Ira B. Matetsky (mail):
How about "scholarly dicta" -- because they can be interesting observations, but are not essential to any results.
4.19.2006 4:33pm
Roger (mail):
Not all "hacks" are shoddy. For example, in O'Reilly's book on "Hacks" he suggests using Knoppix to fix many Windows problems. Indeed, Knoppix is a hack unto itself. As most Linux devotees will tell you, using Linux for anything is hardly shoddy.

Or, put another way, the trend in software is to allow users to modify it considerably. So, for example, anyone can modify Firefox's chrome. Is this shoddy? Only if it is done badly. For everyone else it can be a useful extension.

Now, a lot of legal discoveries may appear to be overdone legal fictions, that are clumsy and often evade any sort of review.

Oh, some people say "practice tips" but academics hate them, because they figure they can think their way around them.
4.19.2006 4:46pm
msk (mail):
You give it indexability when you work it into your published scholarship.

The "original author" is not always bedrock, as he or she may be only contributing a serendipitious blend of ideas from personal memories/experiences.
4.19.2006 4:57pm
just me (mail):
I agree with Mr. Pagano that it's helpful to include a specific example of such a micro-discovery (or whatever it should be called).

But I suggest that EV has already done so, as the post itself -- by identifying this phenomenon and working to label it -- is itself such a "micro-discovery."
4.19.2006 5:25pm
Michael Froomkin (mail) (www):
I call these a "footnote".
4.19.2006 5:38pm
Thief (mail) (www):
How about "Snowflakes" - after the (in)famous memo style of Donald Rumsfeld: quick observational notes, scribbled in margins of briefing papers and then dropped gently from the sky, as it were. (Google for more, apparently the name has kinda stuck at DoD)

Another point: Just because a discovery or a concept is believed unimportant now does not mean it will not become so in the future. After all, Gregor Mendel's pioneering work on genetics and genetic traits was not recognized as such until long after his death, even though he was a contemporary of Charles Darwin, and Pyotr Ufimtsev's mathematics paper that led to true stealth aircraft technology was published in an unclassified Soviet journal of mathematics because the Soviets percieved that it had no military application.
4.19.2006 6:00pm
Flavio Rose (mail):
In most scholarly fields there are "letters" or "short communications" type journals with low page limits whose purpose is to publish small but significant discoveries (e.g., the journal entitled "Physical Review Letters"). In some journals, ideas of this kind can be communicated as letters to the editor.

I do not know of such journals in law. But legal scholarly journals are different from those of other academic fields in many ways.

An example of a "small" discovery, from 1908, is the Hardy-Weinberg law of population genetics, published as a letter to the editor in Science. See this web version of the letter. The conjectured structure of DNA was published in 1953 by Watson and Crick on a single page in Nature.

A skilled scholar of today would presumably know how to turn a small discovery into a long paper if that were considered useful.
4.19.2006 8:08pm
John Noble (mail):
Thief offers another "point." Isn't that the word? It captures a point of fact, a point of view, a point of contention, a point of agreement, a point of law or mathematics. You can get the point, make the point, take the point, see the point, question the point. Does that help, or am I missing the point?
4.19.2006 8:09pm
Stephen Aslett (mail):
Where I'm from, we call these "nuggets" or "tidbits." Meriam Webster tells me that we're not crazy for doing so:
4.19.2006 8:17pm
Roger Alford (mail):

I would borrow language from the open source context and call it a "legal patch," similar to a patch in Linux software. That is how I used it in this post. A recent example I wrote about of a "legal patch" or "micro-discovery" that I would never write about in a full article is my post on daylight saving time as an international custom that does not rise to the level of binding customary international law. Details here.

Roger Alford
Opinio Juris
4.19.2006 10:11pm
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
These no longer exist, as modern academia has made sure to provide the means for publishing any idea or observation, no matter how trivial, in any field.
4.19.2006 10:36pm
SAC hit the nail right on the head. Lemma sums it up perfectly.
4.20.2006 12:26am
Chris Nalls (mail):
Not a thesis, but a wee-sis (pl. weeses).
4.20.2006 12:47am
beefcurtains (mail):
4.20.2006 1:43am
Kink, noun, a clever unusual way of doing something.

You can find a fair number of old technical books called,
for example, "1001 Machine Shop Kinks" which are filled
with brief, useful, non-obvious ways of doing things.
4.20.2006 1:54am
Vance (mail):
I think I'd go for something like "epiphanette."
4.20.2006 8:12am
Sounds like a "tip", as in "Tips and Techniques for Maximizing Your Defendant's Jailtime". Many trade and hobby periodicals have a selection in every issue. ABA Jounal had anecdotes in a similar, but more self-deprecating, way back when I read it.

"Hack" isn't bad in some circles, but as Steve P. demonstrates, noobs (defined as they who calls themselves programmers, but don't do assembler) bastardized that term from its original meaning (see the book "Hackers" by Steven Levy) and from there it was popularized it into a negative thing.

There was great interest in "knowledge management" among the mainstream consulting firms a while back - I'm sure they had taxonomies for this stuff.
4.20.2006 10:32am
At some computer science conferences, there are "lightning talks", which are short (~5 minute) talks discussing things that don't merit a full talk. Immature and wild ideas are encouraged.
4.20.2006 12:03pm
4.20.2006 3:31pm
A. J. Pate (mail):
Though there is much to dislike about the French, they do have a beautiful language. Its words and phrases are often used in English to express thoughts or ideas. For several reasons: where there is no precise equivalent in English, or, its opposite, where its imprecise translation conveys a less-literal, perhaps broader, meaning than an equivalent in English; and to add a veneer of sophistication (false or not).

With that foreword, I offer the following for consideration (could be hyphenated, I suppose):

"petit decouverte"
"petit idee"
"petit lumiere" (the little light)

Of course, "petit" has the advantage of being used in law already to mean minor or lesser. As used with "lumiere", it could mean little, as indicated above.
4.20.2006 4:06pm
A. J. Pate:
Sorry to double-post, but remembered my last thought just as I clicked on Post. You might want to run an inquiry on this by William Safire, who writes the "On Language" column for the New York Times. Suppose he still writes the column, though he is now chairman of the Dana Foundation.
4.20.2006 4:24pm
nlo (mail):
I proposed a neologism to some friends earlier this year:

Neologism: We have demogogues (rabble-rousers), monologues (single speakers), prologues (before-speeches), etc. In the spirit of promoting concise and precise speech, I therefore propose a new word:

nanologue: a speech a tiny topic of narrow interest. (compound word from the Greek nanos (dwarf) and legein (to speak)). Example: "As the congressman droned on about the need to fund research into the Northeastern Nebraskan breeding habits of the Magruder's Wood Thrush to the tune of $10,000 per year, the viewers on C-Span were treated to a fine example of a nanologue."
4.20.2006 9:11pm
How about "Wikipedia entry"
4.21.2006 12:31pm
Micro-discoveries is great. In my field, computer science, I would call these a "maximum unpublishable unit" or MUU, as opposed to a minimum publishable unit, which would become an article. It could also be called a lemma or minor theorem if it were indisputably provable, or it could also be published as a note or a letter. Of course, note already has a different meaning for legal scholars.

Hack is no good, because it is an overused word with at least 3 meanings (n. an embarrassingly bad bit of work, whose badness one apologies for by labelling it a hack; v. to modify something in a technically challenging and sometimes obscure way; v. to break into a computer system without authorization, for either good or bad purposes). Many non-technical people think it always means breaking into computer systems for nefarious purposes,
and many computer people generate unnecessary bad PR for themselves by not realizing this.
4.21.2006 8:16pm