Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Scientific Communications in Web 2.0 Context

This is a slightly out of context post that covers, instead of a particular aspect of science, some recent developments that may change the paradigms in scientific communications.

Despite the stereotype of lab-coat wearing geeks buried in their work with little connection to the outside world, communication is an extremely important aspect of a scientist’s job. Modern scientific research cannot be conducted in isolation. Hence scientists need to effectively disseminate information, whether presenting data in the informal settings of a lab meeting, or in more formal talks or posters at seminars and scientific conferences. Additionally, there is the matter of publishing scientific findings in technical journals and convincing peers about the importance their work while applying for grants. In a broader scope, scientists also need to spread knowledge to the general lay audience (especially in the current atmosphere of countries like the US, where scientists are being broadly discredited through active political agendas).

Traditionally, the World Wide Web has been employed by scientists as a tool to read/respond to e-mails, search and read journal articles (the old practice of going to the library to access paper copies of journals is all but obsolete), and search information on products, procedures etc (not to mention keeping bench scientists occupied while they wait for reactions to incubate or gels to complete their run). However, the role of the internet in science communication is rapidly expanding. Advent of the hyper-networked platform of the so-called Web 2.0 has particularly opened up excellent opportunities for scientists to both reach out to wider audiences as well as improve communication within their own community.

A major advance has been with respect to communication of science to wider audiences through mediums like blogs (this blog itself is a humble attempt in that direction). Previously, only a select group of science writers and a small number of publications could reach out to this audience. But given the ease of setting up and maintaining a blog and its potential reach, scientists now have an unprecedented access to audiences to talk about technical aspects as well as science policy, future etc. A good example is the wide assortment of blogs hosted under the banner of Scienceblogs, with a majority written by active science researchers.

On the technical side, two exciting portals that could possibly revolutionize scientific communications have come online in recent times. Late last year, the Public Library of Science (PLoS), a non-profit organization championing ‘open-access’ in science publishing, began a web-based journal called PLoS One. Other than being openly accessible to anyone with an internet connection (as opposed to ones that require paid subscriptions), this online-journal is distinguished by its criterion for acceptance: the peer-review process only considers the technical and methodological soundness of the scientific experiments, and accepts paper without any subjective considerations for perceived importance or relevance of the work.

While PLoS One accepts completed manuscripts, the highly reputed journal Nature recently launched a site called the Nature Precedings where scientists can submit pre-publication data and ideas in the form of ‘presentations, posters, white papers, technical papers, supplementary findings, and manuscripts’. Precedings does not have any peer-review system other than a check for completeness and scientific relevance (ie to make sure no non- or pseudo- scientific materials are being posted). Also, while PLoS One accepts manuscripts related to any ‘science or medicine’, Precedings is restricted to ‘biology, medicine (except clinical trials), chemistry and the earth sciences’.

Both Precedings and PLoS One submissions are assigned a unique number called the Digital Object Identifier (DOI) which enables other researchers to cite the articles in their own communications. Additionally, in both cases, the authors retain copyright of the articles through a Creative Commons License. Both sites also have Web 2.0 features such as RSS feeds and tags enabled.

But perhaps the most exciting feature on both Precedings and PLoS One is the ability of readers to comment on the published papers or posts, the idea being that science should be interactive and the connectivity of the web should enable researchers to participate actively in discussions with a broad audience. Additionally, the ability to vote on papers and submissions provides an alternative form of peer-review (a scientific equivalent of Digg?)

Therefore, unlike publishing in traditional journals, a process that takes a few months to complete, or presenting at a conference, only a few which are held and typically with a restricted audience, these portals will allow rapid dissemination of information to a large geographically unrestricted group of scholars. In some ways it is like presenting your data at a big conference, without the actual travel. Potentially, a huge beneficiary could be science in economically poorer countries (or even scientists with sparse budgets in developed countries), where researchers do not have the resource or funding necessary to attend many high quality conferences.

Another benefit of scientists widely using these services is the potential reduction of research redundancy. Especially in the interdisciplinary scenario of today, there are often two or more research groups employing similar methods for a single purpose. While competition is good in some cases, in this day and age of restricted budget for science, it is perhaps better to collaborate then compete.

However, the major concern for the success of such initiatives is whether enough scientific researchers will participate in submitting, commenting and engaging in a meaningful discussion. Old mindsets are difficult to change; currently, scientific scholarship is judged by the number of publications, but more so by the quality of the journals published in, as decided by their Impact Factor. Therefore many researchers would prefer to publish in traditional, arguably more prestigious journals. Moreover, in case of Precedings, it is possible that many laboratories around the world will be wary about releasing novel findings or new ideas for the fear of being scooped by others. Secondly, there is the concern about participation in the discussions. For example, while there are significant number of papers published in PLoS One, very few are commented on, leave aside carrying out an active discussion [1]. Nature’s previous attempt at an ‘open’ peer-reviews system was a failure of sorts as well. Some scientists may even view such activities as time-wasting diversions from real work. Another criticism, mainly for PLoS One, is the fact that the fees for publishing are rather high – 1250 US dollars, which might be too steep for scientists with low research budget.

Still, one can hope that with time, scientists will come to embrace the use of online resources for rapid sharing and discussion of their research. In the world of physics and mathematical research, the Cornell University maintained pre-publication portal, ArXiv, has achieved this goal with great success. It is time for all branches of science, especially the ever expanding biomedical sciences, to welcome the concept. Publishing or pre-publishing at sites like PLoS One or Preceding and obtaining high votes or encouraging active discussions should be looked upon as meaningful scholarly achievements. One can also hope for further engagement of internet technologies in science, e.g. laboratories using a Wiki-like platform to update their results, experimental protocols etc. Fittingly, I will cite this presentation posted on Precedings on how such a communication scheme will look like.


[1]: PLoS has recently engaged the services of an Online Community Manager to encourage commenting. The job is held incidentally by a very active science blogger, who got the job in a very Web 2.0 manner, with the initial contact occurring through his blog !