Replacing science publications in the 21st century

Yasset Perez-Riverol asked me to take a look at a post he wrote: a commentary on an article titled Beyond the Paper.  In fact, I suggest reading the original paper, as well as taking a look at Yasset’s wonderful summary image that’s being passed around.  There’s some merit to both of them in elucidating where the field is going, as well as how to capture the different forms of communication and the tools available to do so.

My first thought after reading both articles was “Wow… I’m not doing enough to engage in social media.”  And while that may be true, I’m not sure how many people have the time to do all of those things and still accomplish any real research.

Fortunately, as a bioinformatician, there are moments when you’ve sent all your jobs off and can take a blogging break.  (Come on statistics… find something good in this data set for me!)  And it doesn’t hurt when Lex Nederbragt asks your opinion, etither

However, I think there’s more to my initial reaction than just a glib feeling of under-accomplishment.  We really do need to consider streamlining the publication process, particularly for fast moving fields.  Whereas the blog and the paper above show how the current process can make use of social media, I’d rather take the opposite tack: How can social media replace the current process.  Instead of a slow, grinding peer-review process, a more technologically oriented one might replace a lot of the tools we currently have built ourselves around.  Let me take you on a little thought experiment, and please consider that I’m going to use my own field as an example, but I can see how it would apply to others as well. Imagine a multi-layered peer review process that goes like this:

  1. Alice has been working with a large data set that needs analysis.  Her first step is to put the raw data into an embargoed data repository.  She will have access to the data, perhaps even through the cloud, but now she has a backup copy, and one that can be released when she’s ready to share her data.  (A smart repository would release the data after 10 years, published or not, so that it can be used by others.)
  2. After a few months, she has a bunch of scripts that have cleaned up the data (normalization, trimming, whatever), yielding a nice clean data set.  These scripts end up in a source code repository, for instance github.
  3. Alice then creates a tool that allows her to find the best “hits” in her data set.  Not surprisingly, this goes to github as well.
  4. However, there’s also a meta data set – all of the commands she has run through part two and three.  This could become her electronic notebook, and if Alice is good, she could use this as her methods section: It’s a clear concise list of commands needed to take her raw data to her best hits.
  5. Alice takes her best hits to her supervisor Bob to check over them.  Bob thinks this is worthy of dissemination – and decides they should draft a blog post, with links to the data (as an attached file, along with the file’s hash), the github code and the electronic notebook.
  6. When Bob and Alice are happy with their draft, they publish it – and announce their blog post to a “publisher”, who lists their post as an “unreviewed” publication on their web page.  The data in the embargoed repository is now released to the public so that they can see and process it as well.
  7. Chris, Diane and Elaine notice the post on the “unreviewed” list, probably via an RSS feed or by visiting the “publisher’s” page and see that it is of interest to them.  They take the time to read and comment on the post, making a few suggestions to the authors.
  8. The authors make note of the comments and take the time to refine their scripts, which shows up on github, and add a few paragraphs to their blog post – perhaps citing a few missed blogs elsewhere.
  9. Alice and Bob think that the feedback they’ve gotten back has been helpful, and they inform the publisher, who takes a few minutes to check that they have had comments and have addressed the comments, and consequently they move the post from the “unreviewed” list to the “reviewed” list.  Of course, checks such as ensuring that no data is supplied in the dreaded PDF format are performed!
  10. The publisher also keeps a copy of the text/links/figures of the blog post, so that a snapshot of the post exists. If future disputes over the reviewed status of the paper occur, or if the author’s blog disappears, the publisher can repost the blog. (If the publisher was smart, they’d have provided the host for the blog post right from the start, instead of having to duplicate someone’s blog, otherwise.)
  11. The publisher then sends out tweets with hashtags appropriate to the subject matter (perhaps even the key words attached to the article), and Alice’s and Bob’s peers are notified of the “reviewed” status of their blog post.  Chris, Diane and Elaine are given credit for having made contributions towards the review of the paper.
  12. Alice and Bob interact with the other reviewers via comments and twitters, for which links are kept from the article.  (trackbacks and pings) Authors from other fields can point out errors or other papers of interest in the comments below.
  13. Google notes all of this interaction, and updates the scholar page for Alice and Bob, noting the interactions, and number of tweets in which the blog post is mentioned.   This is held up next to some nice stats about the number of posts that Alice and Bob have authored, and the impact of their blogging – and of course – the number of posts that achieve the “peer reviewed” status.
  14. Reviews or longer comments can be done on other blog pages, which are then collected by the publisher and indexed on the “reviews” list, cross-linked from the original post.

Look – science just left the hands of the vested interests, and jumped back into the hands of the scientists!

Frankly, I don’t see it as being entirely far fetched.  The biggest issue is going to be harmonizing a publisher’s blog with a personal blog – which means that most likely personal blogs will probably shrink pretty rapidly, or they’ll move towards consortia of “publishing” groups.

To be clear, the publisher, in this case, doesn’t have to be related whatsoever to the current publishers – they’ll make their money off of targeted ads, subscriptions to premium services (advanced notice of papers? better searches for relevant posts?) and their reputation will encourage others to join.  Better bloging tools and integration will the grounds by which the services compete, and more engagement in social media will benefit everyone.  Finally, because the bar for new publishers to enter the field will be relatively low, new players simply have to out-compete the old publishers to establish a good profitable foothold.

In any case – this appears to be just a fantasy, but I can see it play out successfully for those who have the time/vision/skills to grow a blogging network into something much more professional.  Anyone feel like doing this?

Feel free to comment below – although, alas, I don’t think your comments will ever make this publication count as “peer reviewed”, no matter how many of my peers review it. :(

2 thoughts on “Replacing science publications in the 21st century

  1. I don’t think a blog would be the appropriate place for original research that needs to be reviewed. But, apart from that, you’re sketching a nice model.

    One thing I am enthousiastic about is the idea of the micropublication, a small (set of) result(s), let’s say one figure or table, that gets published with a doi and then peer-reviewed. Then authors could collect a set of such publications to make a ‘real’ paper with more body, and the bigger picture (‘what do all these new results mean’).

    The big challenge will be to make sure the scientific community actually spends time reviewing all this material. Perhaps receiving a specific invitation, as is the case today, would still be needed? And finally, we need a way to get credit for (i.e., measure impact of) all the activities, be it (micro)publicing, reviewing, etc…

    • Oddly enough, I agree with you – the weakest part here is the blogging, which doesn’t quite fit nicely. The real solution is a blog-like space that is controlled by a publishing group – presumably to which a yearly subscription is paid, not much different than a hosting plan. The big difference would be that the hosting plan would include a basic level of curation.

      Anyhow, it’s a starting point for a bigger conversation. We really need more than just the models that are currently available for “macro” publications, exactly as you’ve pointed out. We need a hybrid between a blog and a publication that allows small groups to disseminate small bits of science… and then a good way to judge their value to the community.

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