The Future Is Already Here

This is a crosspost from the Good Science, Bad Science blog, where I am writing these days as part of a course I am taking at the University of Amsterdam.

Attending the seminar on Improving Scientific Practice at the University of Amsterdam last week, I was more than once reminded of the quip by William Gibson (of Neuromancer fame) that “the future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed”. It’s a quote that gets thrown around a lot in the hacker circles I used to frequent, but I believe that it’s just as true for science communication.

At one point, Kees Schuyt – a sociologist of law who has been a professor for more than four decades – lamented the lack of post-publication peer review today: in earlier days, a prominent article would have been followed by four, five responses in the journal over the next few issues; but today, he said, he hardly sees this.

Schuyt’s comment is interesting to me not just because it gives an insight into the scientific practices of yore, but also because I see post-publication peer review all around me, everyday. It’s not called that, of course, but scientists, students, and journalists discuss and critique the research of others all the time on blogs and Twitter (see my introduction to using Twitter in the pursuit of good science). Such networked communications technologies are almost perfectly suited to support the scientific discourse – and we are by far not using their full potential.

The Networked Public Sphere

One of the slogans of new media advocates is “we are the media”. Indeed, the strength of blogs lies in the fact that anybody, anywhere, can run one. Seeing the difficulty Nick Brown (another attendee of last week’s seminar) and his collaborators have had in getting their criticism of Barbara Fredrickson’s “positivity ratio” nonsense math published by the original journal, barrier-free access to publishing is an asset to good science.

Yet, a researcher like Prof. Schuyt, reading the journal online or, even more removed, on paper, would never have known about criticism published on a blog. Here, traditional journals lack an interface with other media. The technology to connect original publications and responses already exists: blogs know a so-called “pingback”, which notifies the owner of a link to a specific blog post. Because pingbacks are posted as comments under the article, they are also visible to other readers: they weave a network between articles and responses.

Comment sections, too, are still uncommon in scientific journals, despite their obvious potential for post-publication peer review. Instead, readers wanting to critique a paper have to turn to services like PubPeer – which now offers a browser extension to display comments on publishers’ websites: a user-based work-around where journals have been too slow to adapt.

PLoS One displays tweets containing the article link next to the web version of the paper.
PLoS One displays tweets containing the article link next to the web version of the paper.

Linking papers, blog posts, and comments to each other in such a way is important, in particular for the reader who encounters them later – and we hope our publications to be relevant for years, even decades to come. But in the present moment, the best way to link them is often Twitter: the service allows for real-time discourse linking content across platforms. In its ephemeral nature, Twitter thus complements the more slow-moving debate based on, first, longer blog posts and, finally, responses in journals and review articles.

Making Discourse Visible

If you believe that post-publication peer review is the future, this future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed. The tools I have mentioned – blogs with pingbacks, comments, and Twitter integration – already exist, but as of yet, they are used by a technophile few, hardly integrated with scientific publication outlets, and often invisible to the uninitiated.

Integrating official publications with networked media is a particular opportunity for open access journals. Some of them already do: PLoS, for example, allows comments and displays relevant tweets. Other, in particular closed access, publications make it difficult to discuss, review, and correct the scientific record as they lack these features. To integrate these outlets into the discursive network of post-publication peer review will be to evenly distribute the future that’s already here.

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