June 17, 2008

Scientific publishing in the Internet era

Scientific publishing is an amazing area not only because it is the principal means of diffusion of scientific knowledge but also because it has remained practically unchanged - at least as far as its basic processes - for almost 400 years (the first scientific journals the French Journal des s├žavans and the English The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society were published in 1655 according to the Wikipedia)! I do not know many examples of activities (except of some religious rituals) that have undergone so little change in such a long time. What is also interesting is that this area has so far escaped the Internet avalanche; The basic structure (oligopoly) and basic process - blind reviews and copyrighted publishing - have not changed much. Of course today most journals are published electronically and authors can submit their manuscripts, get feedback and even follow the review process on line. But try to find out how many times an article has been downloaded (an indication I would say of the article popularity and endorsement) and no journal will reveal that. I suspect that there are several interests and maybe some good reasons for this secrecy - I can imagine some - and for keeping in place a process that was invented 400 years ago. One of the reasons is that while scientists are good in science they are not real innovators.
The point is that the scientific journal "industry" has so far escaped the fate of the press, travel, music, film and many other industries that increasingly suffer from loss of their monopoly as intermediates of services or their exclusivity on distribution of information and entertainment to online alternatives.
Maybe the first step for the scientific publishing industry, if they do no want to be added in the list (something quite likely to happen sooner rather than later if things do not change), is at least to become more open and review some of their copyright practices. A first step would be to allow their online readers to interact by adding reviews or comments to published papers; some short of recommendation options (see Amazon, ebay etc) could be also quite useful. Such innovations will improve the validity of scientific research and help journals to find better reviewers. It will also reward the more relevant research and at the end of the day will meet the requirements of the modern scientist who looks for possibilities of expression and peer-to-peer communication. After all more and more people are convinced today about the Wisdom of Crowds hypothesis and by all means scientists are supposed to be a wise crowd.