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The Future of the Paper…does it have one? (and the answer is yes!)

23 August 2009 3 Comments

A session entitled “The Future of the Paper” at Science Online London 2009 was a panel made up of an interesting set of people, Lee-Ann Coleman from the British Library, Katharine Barnes the editor of Nature Protocols, Theo Bloom from PLoS and Enrico Balli of SISSA Medialab.

The panelists rehearsed many of the issues and problems that have been discussed before and I won’t re-hash here. My feeling was that the panelists didn’t offer a radical enough view of the possibilities but there was an interesting discussion around what a paper was for and where it was going. My own thinking on this has been recently revolving around the importance of a narrative as a human route into the data. It might be argued that if the whole scientific enterprise could be made machine readable then we wouldn’t need papers. Lee-Ann argued and I agree that the paper as the human readable version will retain an important place. Our scientific model building exploits our particular skill as story tellers, something computers remain extremely poor at.

But this is becoming an increasingly smaller part of the overall record itself. For a growing band of scientists the paper is only a means of citing a dataset or an idea. We need to widen the idea of what the literature is and what it is made up of. To do this we need to make all of these objects stable and citeable. As Phil Lord pointed out this isn’t enough because you also have to make those objects and their citations “count” for career credit. My personal view is that the market in talent will actually drive the adoption of wider metrics that are essentially variations of Page Rank because other metrics will become increasingly useless, and the market will become increasingly efficient as geographical location becomes gradually less important. But I’m almost certainly over optimistic about how effective this will be.

Where I thought the panel didn’t go far enough was in questioning the form of the paper as an object within a journal. Essentially each presentation became “and because there wasn’t a journal for this kind of thing we created/will create a new one”. To me the problem isn’t the paper. As I said above the idea of a narrative document is a useful and important one. The problem is that we keep thinking in terms of journals, as though a pair of covers around a set of paper documents has any relevance in the modern world.

The journal used to play an important role in publication. The publisher still has an important role but we need to step outside the notion of the journal and present different types of content and objects in the best way for that set of objects. The journal as brand may still have a role to play although I think that is increasingly going to be important only at the very top of the market. The idea of the journal is both constraining our thinking about how best to publish different types of research object and distorting the way we do and communicate science. Data publication should be optimized for access to and discoverability of data, software publication should make the software available and useable. Neither are particularly helped by putting “papers” in “journals”. They are helped by creating stable, appropriate publication mechanisms, with appropriate review mechanisms, making them citeable and making them valued. The point at which our response to needing to publish things stops being “well we’d better create a journal for that” then we might just have made it into the 21st century.

But the paper remains the way we tell story’s about and around our science. And if us dumb humans are going to keep doing science then it will continue to be an important part of the way we go about that.


  • “We need to widen the idea of what the literature is and what it is made up of.”

    Quite true. And I agree that science’s past collective experience makes it difficult to see what comes next.

    The problem is few, if any, of the things that will end up replacing journals will be pursued by big publishers. To start off with, these new scientific communication channels will come into being looking half-baked, way too informal, and plain hokey. Not only that, but they’ll have cost structures that leave little or nothing in the way of a viable business model for a big organization. To top it all off, they’ll disrupt the current publication ecosystem involving grant applicants, funding agencies, and publishers – making almost all involved a little anxious – at least for awhile. They’ll produce little but loathing and concern from all ‘serious’ observers for some time.

    Don’t look to today’s leaders for glimpses of what the future holds. Look to the bumbling upstarts.

  • “We need to widen the idea of what the literature is and what it is made up of.”

    Quite true. And I agree that science’s past collective experience makes it difficult to see what comes next.

    The problem is few, if any, of the things that will end up replacing journals will be pursued by big publishers. To start off with, these new scientific communication channels will come into being looking half-baked, way too informal, and plain hokey. Not only that, but they’ll have cost structures that leave little or nothing in the way of a viable business model for a big organization. To top it all off, they’ll disrupt the current publication ecosystem involving grant applicants, funding agencies, and publishers – making almost all involved a little anxious – at least for awhile. They’ll produce little but loathing and concern from all ‘serious’ observers for some time.

    Don’t look to today’s leaders for glimpses of what the future holds. Look to the bumbling upstarts.

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