Monday, April 8, 2013

Beyond the paper, the paper airplane gives a birds' eye view of science communication

This week in Nature, Jason Priem, the co-founder of ImpactStory ("tell the full story of the impact of your research"), describes the future of scientific publishing. He envisions a scientific publishing path wherein publication and peer review are decoupled and occur in the opposite order of the traditional model: first publication, followed by peer review by a restricted audience or even the great masses of online readers. After publication, the online community can assess and promote or demote research based on readers' opinions as well as a host of "altmetrics," measures that go way beyond citation counts to include reads, blog coverage, tweets, and mentions. Moreover, the online revolution of scientific publishing will allow scientists to communicate results at a variety of stages - raw or processed data can be posted for users without going through the work to produce a formal publication. Online tools being developed to facilitate these changes, and, indeed, many already exist (e.g. Rubriq, an independent peer review service).

These developments would provide huge benefits - increased dissemination, improvements in the publication process (e.g. greater speed of publication, reduced cost), and, most certainly, greater transparency into the scientific process. And there are very few legitimate drawbacks. To those who believe that we can't or shouldn't quantify scientific impact, employing altmetrics and a greater diversity of factors to represent impact should do a better job than simple citation counts, a metric already in wide use. These tools will break down the exclusivity of science, an outcome most will see as a positive direction.

The only major drawback that I see is one we deal with constantly in the information age, being able to manage and process the streams of information in our lives, which have magnified at an alarming rate. Priem sees the new rankings of altmetrics as the answer to this problem as well, with online tools that create a personally-tailored "journal" or RSS feed that highlights the most relevant research to your personal interests.

 I do worry about something getting lost here. How will I ever keep comprehensive track of my discipline? Whereas a few years ago, I felt as though I never missed an important publication and could confidently identify the important literature published in my field, nowadays the published and online literature has grown gangly. Also, what will become of the cross-disciplinary spark that comes from happening across a research article digressive from my own interests in a general science journal, a feeling which thrills my A.D.D. science-brain?

These concerns stem from my discomfort in confronting a new landscape, rather than any substantive impediment to online publishing. Learning the new landscape will require trial and error. It might not be painless, but at least I'll probably learn something. Overall, the development of more open, online models like the Public Library of Science is a positive development in science that will make us more effective at communicating our findings to colleagues and the public, and, in the vein of Facebook, Wikipedia, and Twitter, likely open up a host of new possibilities that I can scarcely imagine. I just worry about the eyestrain.

Read the story: Scholarship: Beyond the paper