Thursday, January 24, 2013

Publishing and Perishing in a Connected World

David Dobbs, at The Guardian writes this about science communication:
Here's the essential fact: science has no importance or value until it enters the outside world. That's where it takes on meaning and value. And that's where its meaning and value must be explained.

Scientists implicitly recognize this at a limited scale: They want their colleagues to understand their work, so they go to conferences and explain it. But that's not enough. They need to go explain it at the Big Conference — the one outside of academe. They need to offer the larger world not just a paper meaningful only to peers, but a friendly account of the work's relevance and connections to the rest of life. That means getting lucid with letters columns or op-ed pages or science writers or science cafes or schoolchildren or blog readers.
Dobbs wrote this in 2010 and it will probably resonate for years to come.   Scientific papers are supposed to share new data with other researchers and the public at large, but he suggests that they've become a horribly slow and expensive vehicle for doing so.

It's true, it can easily take years to collect enough information for a single paper, and many more months just to put together that information in a report and "make a story".  This data and story can then be pitched, for lack of a better word, to journals that might publish it.  There's your basic unit of publishing currency.

The problem is that small fragments of information that don't fit in a huge story are a hard sell to journals, because of the relatively low impact of incremental work.

These fragments end up in a huge amount of biological papers indexed in PubMed.  Small reports of a few figures here and there make for difficult reading, and conclusions are usually valid but usually predictable.  In the result, if you're not specifically looking for something you won't read those papers.

In fact, the impact of many of these papers are equivalent to bits of interim data I see from colleagues on a regular basis.   Usually they are part of a bigger project, but sometimes they fall into the category of "interesting, but not what we're investigating".  Wouldn't it be better to simply post these incremental advances - they truly are small advances - to blogs or similar electronic resource? 

The big problem with blogging scientific results is that they usually aren't credited as publications, and Dobbs correctly points out that researchers need these publications for credit.

But it seems that electronic publishing will soon give credit where credit is due through a growing movement to support article metrics, or altmetrics.

If it became more acceptable to promote ones career by publishing small bits of research and making contributions that were published electronically, more information that's otherwise overlooked in labs could be used to engage the public in scientific activities.