Saturday, January 29, 2005

Quantum step in journal publishing

Perhaps the time has come for peer-reviewed scientific journals to receive a challange from online publishing. Yes, it could be a rather messy affair, especially at first. Here are potential disadvantages:

- Inclusion of bad research and pseudoscience along with the good stuff. However, sites or online journal proprietors would earn reputations for delivering quality work, just as in journalism. It would be a small matter to demonstrate a paper as coming from a reputable researcher at a known institution: one way would be for institutions to host their own papers online.

- Possible proliferation of journals, making it harder to find all good, relevant papers. This too should be remedied in time, due to the linking power of the Web.

The rise of the blogosphere could provide a template for the self-assembly of a network for the dissemination of scientific papers: any crackpot with an opinion has access, but those who rise to the top do so for a reason.

Now here are some advantages:

- Less expense. Workers would not be limited to those journals that they and/or their employers want to pay for. (Now, perhaps Journal of Cetaceans might be adequate for some, but there are some specialties -like microbiology- that have many different journals, and maintaining access to all is expensive.)

- Much shorter publishing time. Currently, papers are submitted to journals, assessed by referees, then (if approved) slated for publication, then finally printed and delivered. The process takes months. Since science is a cooperative effort, with later research building on the progress of earlier research, this should accelerate the pace of new discoveries. In areas of research with medical applications the benefits are readily apparent.

- If the past is indicative, new discoveries create even more new questions and avenues for research. Thus, shorter publishing time might lead to increased need for researchers: job security for scientists.

- More flexible format, no space constraints. Want to include spreadsheets containing your data? Photos, photomicrographs, long lengths of DNA sequence? Go right ahead! Set them up as separate Web pages or downloadable files so your paper isn't cluttered! Maybe you're getting on in years and the small print has become a problem. Just reset your browser's display!

- Want journals with an ideological bent, or lack of one? There will be room for both. The only thing that would be militated against is insulated groupthink. Since an online journal would be a list of links, anyone can create their own journal, linking (or not) to whatever they choose. But again, the cream would rise to the top. Related to this, nobody could use the claim of censorship by the peer-reviewed journals to give credence to pseudoscientific ideas.

In short, I think that the publishing of scientific journals could profit from a democratic, online revolution without losing quality. The potential pitfalls would be manageable and the benefits significant.