Thursday, March 28, 2013

The glacial pace of innovation in scientific publishing

Nature made available today a collection of articles about the future of publishing. One of these is a comment by Jason Priem on "Scholarship: Beyond the paper". It is beautifully written and inspirational. It is clear that Jason has a finger on the pulse of the scientific publishing world and is passionate about it. He sees a future of a "decoupled" journal, where modular distributed data streams can be built into stories openly and in real time. Where certification and filtering are not tied to the act of publishing and can happen on the fly by aggregating social peer review. While I was reading I could not contain a sigh of frustration. This is a future that several of us like Neil and Greg debated at Nodalpoint many years ago. Almost 7 years ago I wrote in a blog post:

"The data streams would be, as the name suggests, a public view of the data being produced by a group or individual researcher.(...) The manuscripts could be built in wikis by selection of relevant data bits from the streams that fit together to answer an interesting question. This is where I propose that the competition would come in. Only those relevant bits of data that better answer the question would be used. The authors of the manuscript would be all those that contributed data bits or in some other way contributed for the manuscript creation. (...) The rest of the process could go on in public view. Versions of the manuscript deemed stable could be deposited in a pre-print server and comments and peer review would commence."

I hope Jason wont look back some 10 years from now and feel the same sort of frustration I feel now with how little scientific publishing has changed. So what happened in the past 7 years ? Not much really. Nature had an open peer review trial with no success. Publishers were slow to allow comments on their websites and we have been even slower at making use of them. Euan had a fantastic science blog/news aggregator (Postgenomic) but it did not survive long after he went to Nature. Genome Biology and Nature both tried to create pre-print servers for biomed authors but ended up closing them for lack of users. We had a good run at an online discussion forum with Friendfeed (thank you Deepak) before Facebook took the steam out of that platform. For most publishers we can't even know the total number of times an article we wrote has been seen, something that blog authors have taken for granted for many years. Even some cases where progress has been made, it has taken (or is taking) way too long. The most obvious example is the unique author id where after many (oh so many) years there is a viable solution in sight.  All that said, some progress was made in the past few years. Well, mainly two things - PLOS One and Twitter.

Money makes the world go round

PLOS One had a surprising and successful impact in the science publishing world. Its initial stated mission was to change the way peer review was conducted. The importance of a contribution would be judged by how readers would rate or comment on the article. Only it turns out that few people take the time to rate or comment on papers. Nevertheless, thanks to some great management, first by Chris Surridge and then by Peter Binfield, PLOS One was a huge hit as an novel, fast, open access (at a fair price) journal.  PLOS One, catch-all approach saw a steady increase in number of articles published (and very healthy profits) and got the attention of all other publishers.

If open-access is suitable as a business model then funding sources might feel that is OK to mandate immediate open-access. If that were to happen then only publishers with a similar structure to PLOS would survive. So, to make a profit and to hedge against a mandate for open access all other publishers are creating (or buying) a PLOS One clone. This change is happening at an amazing pace. This is great for open access and it goes in the direction of a more streamlined and modular system of publishing. It is not so great for filtering and discoverability. I have said in the past that PLOS One should stop focusing on growth and go back to the initial focus on filtering and the related problem of credit attribution. To their credit they are one of the few very actively advocating for the development of these tools.  Jason, Heather, Euan and others are doing a great job of developing tools that report these metrics.

1% of the news scrolling by 

Of the different tools that scientists could have picked up to be more social Twitter was the last one I would expect to see taking off. 140 characters ?! Seriously ? How geeky is that ? No threaded discussions, no groups, some weird hashtagsomethings. It what world is this picked up by established tenured university professors that don't have time to leave a formal comment on a journal website ? I have no clue how it happened but it did. Maybe the simple interface with a single use case; the asymmetric (i.e. flattering) network structure; the fact that updates don't accumulate like email. Whatever the reason, scientists are flocking to twitter to share articles, discuss academia and science (within the 140 char) and rebel against the Established System. It is not just the young naive students and disgruntled postdocs. Established group leaders are picking up this social media megaphone. Some of them are attracting  audiences that might rival some journals so this alone might make them care less about that official seal of approval from a "high-impact" journal. 

The future of publishing ? 

So after several years of debates about what the web can do for science we have: 1) a growing trend for "bulk" publishing with no solid metrics in place to help us filter and provide credit to authors; and 2) a discussion forum (Twitter) that is clunky for actual discussions but is at least being picked up by a large fraction of scientist. Were are going from here ? I still think that a more open and modular scientific process would be more productive and enjoyable (less scooping). I am just not convinced that scientists in general even care about these things. From my part I am going to continue sharing ideas on this blog and, now that I coordinate a research group, start posting articles to arXiv. I hope that Jason is right and we will all start to take better advantage of the web for science.

Clock image adapted from