When something turns 350 years old you’d think it’s worth a celebration! Sadly, in the case of scientific publishing it is absolutely not! First, some interesting history, the world’s oldest scientific publication is Philosophical Transactions, which published its first periodical on 6th March 1665. Since then, the basic principle of scientific publishing has remained the same, researchers send their work to a central body for ‘publication,’ i.e. to record their accomplishment and disseminate it from a central source. Of course, there have been changes in the structure of this publication, first with peer review, and more recently with publishing the articles online. However, what is incredible is that the publishers themselves still exist. Not only do they exist, they are thriving, with net profit margins at 36% for Elsevier, a larger margin than Apple (at 35%)! Clearly we need to ask tough questions about the current mechanism of publishing and whether there is a better way.
To this end, there was a conference held at the University of St. Andrew’s recently where they asked the question of how to make scientific communication more efficient. This was in context that researchers spend approximately 15million person hours a year on unpublished submission to journals. Of course the number of hours spent on things that never get submitted probably ends up being over 90% of a researcher’s time. The Gaurdian wrote a short article about the panelists remarks, and the majority of the comments that people brought up were rather incremental in nature things like:
- Who is paying? What value is generated and how is any surplus reinvested?
- Peer-review is radically different from domain to domain, from discipline to discipline
- Authors still create journals in prose-style — do we really need to produce all that text?
However, there was one comment that really stood out to me by Cameron Neylon, the advocacy director of PLoS:
“Scientific communication is a means of dissemination, it is not a product”
This one statement is by far the most powerful way to communicate how and why the current system is broken. We too often view the publication itself as the product and scientists will treat it as ‘finished.’ This ‘productization’ of the publication is effectively what enables publishing companies to make so much money. However, if we take a publication for what it is at it’s core, a means of dissemination, we open up the world of alternatives considerably. News media has already been revolutionized by blogs and twitter, and television by YouTube. What’s more impressive is that the change in media has enabled a greater population to partake in the dialogue and has certainly improved the overall quality of news media. Here are just a few ideas for scientific publishing to spur the conversation:
- Publishing videos of the experiment and result to improve reproducibility, like http://www.jove.com/
- Enabling longer form communications that discuss the methods in great detail, as opposed to ‘letter’ formats which are impossibly short
- Hosting an AMA (ask me anything) with the authors are periods after publication (1 month, 3 months, 12 months, for example)
- Writing a lay-person version of the main findings of the paper
- Publishing a SlideShare version along with the paper (this idea is inspired by an ex-colleague of mine)
- Publishing plots to Plotly so others can re-visualize the data as they please
- Enabling researchers to publicly mark-up documents with comments via genius.com
These are just a few of the many things we can do to dramatically improve communication. So we must ask ourselves as the scientific community, what the real reasons are for not changing our means of knowledge dissemination?
As always, please do leave comments below to spur discussion!