Forward linking and keeping context in the scholarly literature
Last Friday I spoke at the STM Innovation Seminar in London, taking in general terms the theme I’ve been developing recently of focussing on enabling user discovery rather than providing central filtering, of enabling people to act as their own gatekeeper rather than publishers taking that role on for themselves.
An example I used, one I’ve used before was the hydride oxidation paper that was published in JACS, comprehensively demolished online and subsequently retracted. The point I wanted to make was that detailed information, the comprehensive view of what had happened was only available by searching Google. In retrospect, as has been pointed out to me in private communication, this wasn’t such a good example because, there is often more detailed information available in the published retraction. It isn’t always as visible as I might like, particularly to automated systems but actually the ACS does a pretty good job overall with retractions.
Had it come a few days earlier the arsenic microbes paper, and subsequent detailed critique might well have made a better example. Here again, the detailed criticism is not visible from the paper but only through a general search on the web, or via specialist indexes like researchblogging.org. The external reader, arriving at the paper, would have no idea that this conversation was even occurring. The best case scenario is that if and when a formal critique is published that this will be visible from the page, but even in this case this can easily be buried in other citations from the formal literature.
The arsenic story is still unfolding and deserves close observation, as does the critique of the P/NP paper from a few months ago. However a broader trend does appear to be evident. If a high profile paper is formally published, it will receive detailed, public critique. This in itself is remarkable. Open peer review is happening, even becoming common place, an expected consequence of the release of big papers. What is perhaps even more encouraging as that when that critique starts it seems capable of aggregating sufficient expertise to make the review comprehensive. When Rosie Redfield first posted her critique of the arsenic paper I noted that she skipped over the EXAFS data which I felt could be decisive. Soon after, people with EXAFS expertise were in the comments section of the blog post, pulling it apart [1, 2, 3, 4].
Two or three things jump out at me here. First that the complaint that people “won’t comment on papers” now seems outdated. Sufficiently high profile papers will receive criticism, and woe betide those journals who aren’t able to summon a very comprehensive peer review panel for these papers. Secondly that this review is not happening on journal websites even when journals provide commenting fora. The reasons for this are, in my opinion, reasonably clear. The journal websites are walled gardens, often requiring sign in, often with irritating submission or review policies. People simply can’t be arsed. The second is the fact that people are much more comfortable commenting in their own spaces, their own blogs, their community on twitter or facebook. These may not be private, but they feel safer, less wide open.
This leads onto the third point. I’ve been asked recently to try to identify what publishers (widely drawn) can do to take advantage of social media in general terms. Forums and comments haven’t really worked, not on the journal websites. Other adventures have had some success, some failures, but nothing which has taken the world by storm.
So what to do? For me the answer is starting to form, and it might be one that seems obvious. The conversation will always take place externally. Conversations happen where people come together. And people fundamentally don’t come together on journal websites. The challenge is to capture this conversation and use it to keep the static paper in context. I’d like to ditch the concept of the version of record but its not going to happen. What we can do, what publishers could do to add value and, drawing on theme of my talk, to build new discovery paths that lead to the paper, is to keep annotating, keep linking, keep building the story around the paper as it develops.
This is both technically achievable and it would add value that doesn’t really exist today. It’s something that publishers with curation and editorial experience and the right technical infrastructure could do well. And above all it is something that people might find of sufficient value to pay for.