October 10, 2003 21:27 | Features

Welcome to 1996, scientific publishing industry!

Good friend Anders points out this Guardian Online article, "Publish and be praised".

"Good morning houseplants. Yeees, it's time to get up now."

No joke, the article reads like it's 6 years old.

This technological revolution, perhaps as significant as the invention of the printing press, has the potential to dramatically increase the impact of scientific discoveries.

Gee! Really?

Where to begin hacking this apart?

First of all, let's forget for a moment that the Internet allowed the emergence of collaborative development, the Open Source movement, etc, which have in turn allowed information technology research and development to progress at a rate never before seen in all of human history, in any human endeavor.

To wit, the problem lies not with the publishers, who, like any good cornered animal, of course will fight to the death. You'd think the scientific community would understand that resisting evolution is a good way to guarantee obsolescence and extinction. Adapt, or go away.

Yes, the problem lies with the seeming majority of members of the scientific community itself. They as a group, make up the scientific community and thus control it's ways and means. As stated in the article, the practice of scientific journal publication is over 350 years old and very lucrative business processes are built upon and rely on it. Publishers' and published researchers' lives and livelihood depend on this archaic structure. But it is in their power to change this, and for the better.

So this Mr. (Dr?) Michael Eisen co-founds the Public Library of Science, essentially a free, online scientific journal.

To attract the best papers, we hired the best staff, recruited the best academic editorial board of any journal in the world, and trumpeted the benefits of open access to the scientific community and the public.

And it has paid off. Prominent scientists from around the world have sent us their best work.

Great. No, really, this is great. However, he obviously didn't learn anything from the dot-com bust, if he'd even heard of it.

"Let's use the same socio & economic infrastructure we already have and just slap a website on top of it. It'll be great!"

That would have worked, for a year or two, back in 1998-1999.

DISCLAIMER: I must say now, before I go on, that no, I do not believe "Weblogs" and "Wikis" are the ultimate solution to all of the world's ills, but here is a perfect example where they, used judiciously, could REALLY be of great benefit..

The first thing that needs to change is the view that the validity of a researcher's work is judged by a few select members of academic editorial review boards and the reputation they have brought to journal X, Y or Z. The definition of "peer-review" needs to be stretched a bit.. nay.. ripped wide open. Ok, maybe not wide open, but it does need to give substantially.

Second, academics and researchers need to awaken to and understand the power of the persistent URI (web address). They need to see the ease and flexibility current self-web-publishing offers. Ok, granted, these tools are not quite user-friendly enough for prime time but we're getting there, so get ready!

Current tools could be easily customized for simple, decentralized, peer-group-reviewed publication of research papers, et al, while maintaining and preserving the author's rights, reputation and all important fragile egos.

Yes there are many issues, as with all things. Obstacles are meant to be overcome.