Scientific publication changing with the times

Alan Boyle covers a talk by Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science that augurs changes to come in the publication of pop science:

However, during a Q&A session, Kennedy suggested that the print version of a Science paper might be written in a shorter, "more user-friendly" style - with the full blow-by-blow account appearing in the online version. The online archive would also provide video, complex graphics and other supplemental materials that just can't be put into the on-paper publication, he said.
Kennedy's main theme was that with the rise of online research distribution and 24/7 news distribution, scientific discoveries aren't likely to fit into an "only-on-Thursdays" package.
"It's going to create a problem for the people who try to manage science news," Kennedy said. "My guess is that the embargo system will either be abandoned, in which case it'll be a free-for-all ... [or] it's certainly likely that embargoes will be shortened, and the distribution of news to mainstream news media - which used to happen in clumps so that embargoes for an entire clump could be organized - is going to happen in driblets. So there will have to be a more confusing embargo environment."

The talk was for an audience of people interested in science reporting, and Boyle discusses the issues well from that perspective.

I have to say that as a scientist I am really divided. Papers in anthropology in Science and Nature in particular have a poor track record over the past several years. A very high proportion of the papers I am prepared to evaluate have big (and often glaringly obvious) flaws. In many instances, I've pointed those out on the weblog, so it's no surprise.

But it is compounded by one of the trends that I really hate is the trend toward hiding details of the paper in online supplements of one kind or another. Papers with hidden details are impossible to evaluate quickly, and the more difficult they are to judge, the fewer independent people will try to evaluate them. Fewer eyes means a smaller chance of catching errors. That may be good for some authors, and good for the journal, but it's bad for science.

On the other hand, if the paper version of Science had breezier articles that were more accessible to nonspecialists, I would be much more likely to subscribe. Presently, I only read the journal online through my university subscription. Although I am interested in solid state physics breakthroughs, I'm not equipped to follow a research paper in that field or in many others. The occasional news article or "perspective" by some other scientist is just not enough value added.

I've always loved Scientific American because it specializes in articles written by professionals for a more general audience. But I certainly can't see the percentage for Science or Nature to follow that model -- I can only imagine trying to find enough new research from good writers to fill a weekly magazine.

The model that Kennedy talks about, with the online version of a paper as the "archival" version does have the merit of possibly eliminating the "supplementary information" problem. Just have the online paper be longer. Maybe a system where papers accepted in Science are understood to be two parallel developments -- a "real" research paper and a "lite" version -- would work. But I'd bet they'd have to assign "real" writers to many of the papers to get them up to readability!

I think the biggest difference they could make would be to open up the review process. The linked article does talk about this concept some. As an associate editor of PLoS One, I have some experience with the more open discussion system, and I think it's vastly preferable. With something as high-profile as Science, you would probably want a moderator for continued online discussions of the new research, but it creates the opportunity for a real marketplace of ideas. I like the open marketplace model; it lets the good ideas come to the surface.

The article expresses some worries that people won't be able to deal with the "messy process" of science. Personally, I think it's dishonest to pretend science is anything else. And it's not like closing the reviews and hiding information makes things look neater. Frequently, the product is a flawed research article that is exposed on somebody's blog within a day of publication. That doesn't make anybody look good.

Except, maybe, the blogger!