ScienceBloggers discuss the advantages of open science and debate the necessity of the current peer-review system.

Rather than submit his unified theory of particle behavior to a traditional academic journal, rogue physicist Garrett Lisi uploaded it to arXiv.org. Since 1991, physical scientists and mathematicians have uploaded their scholarly work onto arXiv at about the same time that they submit them to a journal—making it freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

The journal-operated system of peer-review, Lisi says, “is severely broken.” On this point, he couldn’t find a stronger ally than the science blogosphere. Most of the ScienceBloggers are unwavering advocates of the Open Access (OA) movement, and two of them—Bora Zivkovic, of PLoS ONE, and John Wilbanks, of Science Commons—devote all of their time to it. 

So what’s the big advantage of open-access publishing? Here’s what the bloggers say:

  • Speed.
    For the past 300 years, scientific journals have offered a kind of long-term memory to guide human progress. Michael Nielsen argues that the internet, in contrast, will give us a “collective short-term working memory, a conversational commons for the rapid collaborative development of ideas.” Consequently, “scientific discovery will advance much faster in the next 20 years than in the past 300,” he adds.
  • Public Value. The standard journal system doesn’t make sense for researchers financed by state universities, the NIH, or other government agencies, according to Bill Hooker of 3 Quarks Daily. “Why should taxpayers pay twice, once to support the research and then again when the scientists they are funding need access to the literature?” he asks. Moreover, when scientific data is made available to everyone, it’s more likely to produce “socially desirable outcomes,” he says.
  • Unlimited format. Science, according to Bora Zivkovic, is advancing beyond the standard publication format. Take genomic sequencing. As the techniques become more common, “there is really not much to say in the introduction, materials and methods or discussion sections of a genome paper,” he writes. “All that is needed is a place to deposit the raw data as tools for future research in an easily-minable format that makes such future research easy.”

Most OA advocates are quick to point out that open-access doesn’t necessarily mean the end of publishers or peer-review. “In my view, it makes them both even more important, though both will of necessity be forced to evolve some new methods to deal with the new world,” John Wilbanks wrote last month.

But….what about that peer-review system? Will that be the next stodgy institution to go?

Chad Orzel takes a populist view of the practice: “Saying that only peer-reviewed articles (or peer-reviewable articles) count as science only reinforces the already pervasive notion that science is something beyond the reach of ‘normal’ people. In essence, it’s saying that only scientists can do science, and that science is the exclusive province of geeks and nerds.”

But Janet Stemwedel counters that no matter what the format, peer review will always be a necessary part of practicing science: “Even the less formal, more everyday scientific thinking is inherently a team sport where verifiability by others is a criterion of success,” she says.

Originally published November 17, 2008

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