Dienstag, 1. Februar 2011

SEED Magazine: The scientific paper is becoming obsolete

SEED Magazine, a New York-based magazine on science culture, just published an interesting article about how science publishing is about to be transformed by the internet. You might think that this is an old hat, and in fact the idea that the internet revolutionizes the way we publish and access scientific results is not new. Indeed, "the Internet" was "invented" by scientists to share knowledge. Yet still, subscription costs rise, although the price of knowledge dissemination via the internet is much cheaper than in printed media. The market has obviously failed. Access to scientific results has become expensive, so expensive that the main funders of science (tax payers) only rarely can access to the knowledge which is produced using their money.

More importantly, limited access to scientific results directly harms scientific progress. It is not unusual that it takes about two years until a paper is published. By the time a scientific breakthrough is published, it often fails to make real impact, apart from discouraging other labs to work in that direction.

The tools to overcome the limitations are all there: Scientific results can be published on preprint servers (like arXiv or Nature Precedings) right after writing them up. The stream of information coming out of those servers can be filtered by the scientific community by writing blog posts, or by commenting on the preprint servers directly. So why are these tools still so rarely used in life science?

The answer is simple: Lack of incentive. Writing blog posts does not extend my contract, papers on preprint servers do not increase my university budget (opposed to papers in high-impact journals), and often the possibility to publish in popular journals is compromised by publication on a preprint server.

However, incentive will rise as more and more researchers get frustrated by the corporate science publishing machinery. As more and more university libraries drop out from subscriptions as publishers increase their fees, researchers focus on open access journals. As it is becoming more and more difficult to publish in high-ranking journals, researchers consider alternatives which enable them to spend more time on research and less on getting bashed in anonymous peer review.

For example, PLoS ONE is very successful with publishing papers reviewed for technical correctness, but leaving it to the reader to gauge it's scientific impact. Recently, even Nature publishing group picked up the idea and started it's own version of PLoS ONE, Scientific Reports.

While these journals make it easier to publish one's findings, it is up to the researcher to make an impact in terms of influencing the field. Doing good research takes you only half way. The other half consists of convincing other researchers about one's ideas. The great advantage is that this process takes place in public, while in anonymous peer review it is hidden from the largest part of the scientific community.