The next scientific publishing

Michael Nielsen writes that the scientific publishing industry is set for a “disruption”. It’s an interesting read, and in a sample, he strikes on the same analogy that I used earlier in the week for grant agencies: the rugged fitness landscape:

The problem is that your newspaper has an organizational architecture which is, to use the physicists phrase, a local optimum. Relatively small changes to that architecture - like firing your photographers - dont make your situation better, they make it worse. So youre stuck gazing over at TechCrunch, who is at an even better local optimum, a local optimum that could not have existed twenty years ago:
Unfortunately for you, theres no way you can get to that new optimum without attempting passage through a deep and unfriendly valley. The incremental actions needed to get there would be hell on the newspaper. Theres a good chance theyd lead the Board to fire you.

The essay is full of good one-liners (“The blogosophere has at least four Fields medallists (the Nobel of math), three Nobelists, and many more luminaries. The New York Times can keep its Pulitzer Prizes.”). But is Nielsen right? Is a revolution is scientific publishing coming?

I think this insight has the most potential:

Scientific publishers should be terrified that some of the worlds best scientists, people at or near their research peak, people whose time is at a premium, are spending hundreds of hours each year creating original research content for their blogs, content that in many cases would be difficult or impossible to publish in a conventional journal. What were seeing here is a spectacular expansion in the range of the blog medium. By comparison, the journals are standing still.

The “world’s best scientists” aren’t worried about how to parcel their work into publishable units to impress review committees. The average scientist, on the other hand, has her hands full applying for grants.

So let’s consider two big opportunities for a science publishing startup: (1) Make it easy to advance a body of work from informal to formal. (2) Find a way to bring grant descriptions and bibliographies into the system. Integrate grant applications with the results that follow, possibly years later. In some cases, grant agencies could require open access applications, reviewed on a rolling basis.

I also want to comment on one of Nielsen’s final points: Start-ups have an opportunity to vastly improve online storage of original scientific data.

Developing high-quality web services requires deep knowledge and drive. The people who succeed at doing it are usually brilliant and deeply technically knowledgeable. Yet its surprisingly common to find projects being led by senior scientists or senior editors whose main claim to expertise is that they wrote a few programs while a grad student or postdoc, and who now think they can get a high-quality result with minimal extra technical knowledge. Thats not what it means to be technology-driven.

I’ve seen enough attempts to make databases in anthropology to see this weakness manifested repeatedly, in different ways. Lots of money and effort goes into database creation, only to build a result that requires potential users to develop specialized technical skills of their own. Many sets of data really need expert annotations about which observations are more or less reliable; ideally with photographic or other documentary evidence. The end result is that a bunch of people learn the database because it houses their data, but the collection is not generally useful. Students don’t learn the database, and it falls into disuse. It’s a bad enough problem in genetics, where some databases are highly trafficked, standardized and useful for building third-party applications. Anthro-related databases have a small set of potential users, fewer with the time and technical skill to make things work, and minimal resources for curation of the datasets.

So I agree there’s an opportunity there, but it will be difficult to make work for small scientific communities. Something like Chemspider serves a vast community, with a rich dataset whose elements can be standardized in ways that may be difficult for many anthropological datasets.