How is scientific information distributed?
What is the best way to share, and spread, knowledge?
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When researchers from the PAMELA (Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-nuclei Astrophysics) satellite mission discussed their work at two recent physics conferences, they tried to do so quickly and quietly. Their preliminary analysis indicated that PAMELA had detected dark matter. Such a potentially historic finding, they believed, was best carefully verified in private before being submitted to a prestigious journal and presented to the general public. But their caution was to no avail. Other scientists at the conferences photographed key data from the presentations with digital cameras and used it to prepare and post several papers to public websites lacking peer-review oversight. These papers properly credit the PAMELA team and have undoubtedly accelerated the scientific conversation, but the physics community remains divided over whether such preemptive publishing is ethical in the first place. Similar events have occurred throughout the history of science, but today's technology magnifies the effects. Though the PAMELA team still plans to publish a paper of its own, its acceptance to leading peer-reviewed journals could be jeopardized: Many have rules restricting the public distribution of data prior to publication. And only time will tell whether the PAMELA scientists can reclaim some of their stolen thunder.
It's a common assumption that as the number of online scholarly papers increases each year, more researchers will find and reference a wider variety of articles old and new. But a recent survey by James Evans, a University of Chicago sociologist, suggests this isn't true. By analyzing multiple citation databases cataloging thousands of print and online science journals, Evans showed that, as more issues of a journal became available online, fewer individual articles were cited and the average age of cited articles decreased, with a shrinking pool of recent articles receiving the majority of citations. The explosion of searchable online content seems to promote faster convergence toward scientific consensus, where a shrinking pool of recent, popular articles captures the majority of attention at the expense of older, more obscure findings and ideas.
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The Fundamentals: Publishing
Posted November 20, 2008
Originally appeared in Seed 19