Blogs, papers, and the brave new digital world: Matt’s thoughts
June 11, 2009
First off, thanks to everyone for reading, commenting on, and discussing the previous post. Seeing the diversity of opinions expressed has been interesting and gratifying for us, and we’ve learned a lot from you about how the blogosphere is changing science already. My own thoughts follow, Mike chimes in at the end, and Darren will probably have something to add soon, too.
The Intolerable Problem
Sometimes people push back on posts of mine they don’t like by telling me I’m out of bounds. Somehow, they say, I’ve crossed the boundary of what I’m allowed to write about. They are angry that I’m now writing about something outside my defined area.
I’m usually taken aback by this, because I didn’t realize I’d actually agreed to any boundaries.
Seth Godin, 2009, “Out of Bounds”
Several commenters have brought up what I call the Intolerable Problem, which is that people online can critique papers and present new evidence and arguments in a format that is impermanent and not peer-reviewed. It’s intolerable because on one hand such material is not currently (operative word) citable in most outlets, and on the other hand repeating it sans citation in peer-reviewed literature smacks of plagiarism (to some, but not to all). Although this material is potentially valuable it “doesn’t count” professionally (see exceptions below), which some professionals (not necessarily those who have commented here) regard as a fatal argument against posting it in the first place. But–and this is crucial–it’s only a problem for the tiny fraction of the audience who might want to cite the freely exchanged material. If you’re in that fraction, we value your attention and comments, but don’t assume we’re writing only for you, or to further our professional standing. We blog because we love this stuff, and even at a technical niche blog like SV-POW! the majority of readers probably don’t care at all whether the information is peer-reviewed or “counts” for professionals; they mostly care whether it’s right or not.
One obvious solution to the Intolerable Problem is to simply let people cite anything they want, including blog posts and DML posts. This is already starting to be implemented–see examples here and here and more discussion here. This runs into two problems: one is permanence (there is no guarantee that the cited post will be up forever, or that the author won’t revise it later in response to criticism [as I have done with this very post!]), which can already be solved using tools such as WebCite (thanks to Cameron Neylon for bringing this to our attention in a comment on the previous post).
The other problem is that citations serve two functions, which are to establish priority and to lend authority to an argument. Citing a blog post may establish priority, but some researchers will cavil at the idea that a blog post is an authoritative source (for varying combinations of researchers and blog posts). Whether they would be right to cavil I don’t know; in the end the market will decide. The market–that is, the desire to attain professional respect and avoid censure–will also dissuade authors from larding up their papers with citations to trivial or worthless online sources.
Those who are troubled by the free discussion of papers, evidence, and hypotheses online need to realize that:
- it’s been going on for a long time (15 years for the Dinosaur Mailing List);
- it’s only going to accelerate in the future;
- it’s not a problem for the vast majority of people participating in the discussions;
- any solution must involve accommodation to the reality of how people exchange information online (immediately, freely, globally, without prior filtering).
These discussions are not going to stop, and ignoring the output of such discussions (because they “don’t count”) will eventually become prohibitively expensive as those workers who insist on playing only by the old rules are outmaneuvered by others who find ways to use all available information regardless of its provenience or “respectability”.
Paper journals will die when online journals stop sucking
Most online publications are hampered by having to be identical to the dead-tree versions (no links, no embedded video, no rotating 3D PDF images, etc.). Eventually people will realize that it is counterproductive to keep hobbling the new medium to make it as slow, flat, and inefficient as the old medium. Once one journal takes the hobbles off, others will do the same rather than lose contributors to cutting-edge outlets. A few boutique journals may still produce flattened, gutted versions of the online publications on paper. People still fly biplanes, too. Paper-based journals will never be popular again and their existence will not stop people from doing whatever technology allows them to in the online venues.
Note that this does not even refer to the economic argument against dead-tree publishing, which has already relocated encyclopedias and newspapers from ubiquity to marginality or extinction.
I’m surprised that the revolution isn’t farther along already. The cage is open.
Whither peer review and editing?
This is all part of the Big Flip in publishing generally, where the old notion of “filter, then publish” is giving way to “publish, then filter.” There is no need for Slashdot’s or Kuro5hin’s owners to sort the good posts from the bad in advance, no need for Blogdex or Daypop to pressure people not to post drivel, because lightweight filters applied after the fact work better at large scale than paying editors to enforce minimum quality in advance.
Clay Shirky, 2003, “The Music Business and the Big Flip”
PLoS ONE is already going gangbusters, without peer-review prior to publication in many cases. The only holdup there is that the post-hoc review by commenters is not working out quite like they’d hoped, because few people are commenting. Not everyone agrees that there is a dearth of commenting at PLoS ONE; the larger point is that people publish there a lot and the community treats those pubs like they count, even though in many cases they are essentially un-reviewed.
[Update: I misunderstood peer review at PLoS ONE. Papers may be reviewed externally by people unconnected to PLoS, or by one or more unpaid Academic Editors, or by a combination. I had thought of the review by Academic Editors only, which accounts for 13% of papers, as a form of internal review, but according to Bora (down in the comments) it should count as external review. If you’re happy with that–and the system is not without its critics–then all papers at PLoS ONE are externally reviewed prior to publication; even if you’re not, pre-publication review by someone is still in place across the board at PLoS ONE, and 87% of papers are externally reviewed by people unaffiliated with PLoS. Post-publication commenting supplements rather than replaces pre-publication review.]
People do comment on blogs, all the time. Post-hoc review will work, in fact already does work, just fine on blogs. I predict that PLoS ONE clones of the future (PLoS TWO?) will emulate whatever features of blogs make people willing to comment on them but not on PLoS ONE v1.0.
Alternatively, the paucity of post-hoc commenting at PLoS ONE could be taken as further evidence that journal-mediated peer review, whether before or after publication, is dying just off to a slow start. I think that editorial control is not far behind. Both are locally extinct in some parts of the science publishing ecosystem, since people are already citing blogs.
Q: But–but–but? What about protecting the sanctity of the process? What about about guaranteeing respectability? What about prestige?
A: Hey, those questions would make a terrific opinion piece for your local newspaper–oops, too late.
I don’t deny that editors and peer reviewers often make significant contributions to the quality of published work. I just think that people will learn to get along without them if doing so allows faster and easier exchange of information. That was never possible on paper; it’s long been possible here.
A priori peer review and editorial control were invented because publications were scarce (in the Econ 101 sense of being limited) and there needed to be a barrier to entry. Now publication is instant, free, and global. Error correction and the assignment of value will still happen, but they’ll happen after publication rather than before, and they’ll be distributed rather than centralized.
Clay Shirky described the problem for newspapers and the recording industry as the existence of “cheap perfect copies”. An expanded but by no means exhaustive list for science publication includes:
- cheap perfect copies
- editable (but also archivable)
- linkable (both incoming and outgoing)
- globally distributed
- for free
- without pre-publication filtering
- with multimedia embeds (as opposed to including video etc. separately in the suppl. info.)
Online open-access journals currently take advantage of all of those capabilities except the last two. Newsgroup posts cover all the bases except the last one (so do tweets, despite the severe length limitations).
What covers everything? Blog posts. Which have the added advantage that people will comment on them without being asked.
But that’s not the whole simple story.
The center cannot hold–or can it?
So we’re looking at total chaos, right–a world where anyone posts anything they want, no one has any control, and no one knows how to find the good stuff? Well, two out of three, at least. I’m not worried about that last point, for two reasons.
First, thanks to search engines, aggregators, tags, tweets, links, etc., we already have pretty good tools for finding the good stuff. Those direction finders will get better even as the map gets more complicated.
Second, prestige will always be a motivator, so people will always compete to get into exclusive venues. Nature is not going away, although I think that in the near future they will decouple their online and print publications so that the former can take advantage of all the possibilities the web offers.
If I have a really good idea backed up with lots of data, I’ll keep trying to get it into the most prestigious outlet I can. I won’t put my best stuff on a blog just because it’s faster and less encumbered. Blogs probably won’t replace journals, at least not anytime soon. Rather, the spectrum of publishing possibilities will expand; below the category of Least Publishable Unit we’ll add Most Bloggable Unit and so on down to Least Tweetable Unit, and the new categories will interpenetrate with the old over time.
How nice for me
Well, what a striking coincidence that Mr. Paleo Blogger looks into the ole digital crystal ball and sees “bloggy with a 90% chance of exactly-what-he’s-already-doing”.
I can’t claim to be either uninterested or unbiased in all of this. But I am new to actually thinking about the implications. I hadn’t been to most of the above links or had any of these thoughts as of a week ago. When Casey first e-mailed me six days ago, I replied:
If you’re curious, here’s the short short version of my thoughts: science bloggers critique published papers and blog about unpublished observations all the time. Our post-paper run of posts might be an extreme or even vulgar example, and it might fire more discussion about “what counts?”, but I don’t see it as being different in kind from what many science bloggers do. Papers are papers and blogs are blogs, and I never intended to blur the lines. If people feel that all the blog posts only count as “crap some guys wrote on the internet” and that they can be safely ignored, that’s fine with me. If they think the blog posts deserve some higher level of recognition a la “what counts?”, then I’m honored, but that’s extra value that others are investing in our blog, and not anything that we’ve knowingly sought. I suppose you could turn around and say that I’m trying to have my cake and eat it, too, first with all the pro-paper blogging and now with this “I’m innocent” schtick. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that I’m too tired to figure it out tonight. All the more reason to have an open conversation about this stuff.
Now I realize that the lines between papers and blog posts are blurring, and whether we mean to or not, we SV-POW!sketeers are contributing (Darren’s doing double duty thanks to Tet Zoo). I still think that the investment of blog posts with respectability, value, citability, or whatever rests entirely with readers, and always will. Options range from treating posts like papers to treating them like bar conversations to treating them like spam. You decide.
Also, I tried to keep the writing above value-neutral but probably failed. It’s hard not to get a bit evangelistic about the potential advantages of online publication and online everything else, a tendency I call DISSUADE: Da Internet Shall Save Us All Dead-trees Excepted. Getting published in science hasn’t always been easy up until now, but the process has been relatively clear and familiar. And stable, on decadal and even centennial timescales. Everything about scientific publication is about to get much more fluid and much less clear, and it will probably stay that way for a long time, and it may stay that way forever. Not all of the changes will be for the better, and it may be hard to decide what’s better and what’s worse until we look back with some perspective. Mechanical looms were bad for weavers but good for everyone else. I think many of the changes discussed in this post and the previous comment thread are likely, and some are inevitable.
Set against the shiny digital future is the inertia of the academy and those of us who roost there. I’m not going to stop publishing papers in dead-tree journals (although I will never publish in a journal that doesn’t provide PDFs to authors). Heck, I’m not even going to stop publishing in closed-access journals, some of which are run by societies I admire and want to participate in (after all, everything is open anyway). At the same time I will keep blogging, and while I will frequently bring up technical stuff I don’t want to publish more formally (at least not yet), I will try not to deliberately blur the lines any more than I already have. I don’t need to; the web is already blurring them faster than most of us can keep up.
Oh, about that mystery vert…
…at the end of the post Necks Lie. Nima called it–good spot on the split neural spine. It’s a mid-cervical of Barosaurus, AMNH 6341, in the big bone room (well, one of many big bone rooms) at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. A cast of this vertebra makes up part of the neck in the awesome mounted skeleton in the museum rotunda. Here’s that skeleton, with Mike for scale.
Matt is much more ready than I am to throw away peer-review, editorial control, and journals in general. Sometimes, the reasons that things are the way they are, are good ones; it’s not in the interests of professional iconoclasts like Clay Shirky and Cory Doctorow to point that out or to discuss the strengths of how things are today, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept their arguments as uncritically as (say, to pick a name out of the air completely at random) Matt.
Anyway, happily, G. K. Chesterton foresaw the abolition of journals in favour of blogs, and commented thus:
Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good–” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.
– Heretics (1905).