There’s been a rising swell of anger against certain scientific journals’ publishing practices in the research community. While I will not repost all the arguments here, one thing that keeps popping up is the realization that publishers are stuck in the print-age mindset. Over the last decade or so we’ve seen amazing advances in global communications via the internet and mobile devices. Publishers however appear weary to try anything new – if it ain’t broke don’t fix it right?

I say wrong. To borrow a term from FakeElsevier, the publisher’s one job is to disseminate scientific results to the scientific community and the world at large. If modern societies are now communicating in new and different ways through the internet and the publishers think that printing physical journals is still going to be critical  in the near future, those publishers are going to be left behind.

To be fair, publishers have put a large amount of effort into digitizing all of their previous journals and making them available online in pdf form. While this is great for older papers, the publishers are still in the mental mindset of a print journal. Yes, new papers get put up online ASAP, but again it’s just a pre-print pdf of what will be in the physical journal. This doesn’t take advantage of all the tools available online and makes it seem tacked-on.

So, here’s a few ideas of what could be if publishers decided to seriously pursue all the tools online publishing offers:

Comments and Questions Section:

It’s almost a given nowadays that if you look at any article, blog, tweet, post, what-have-you, scroll down to the bottom and there will be the ability for you to leave a comment or ask a question about what you have just read. Why can’t there be something similar for scientific articles online?

Say I want to duplicate the authors published measurement techniques and I have a question about their experimental procedure. I could always email the contacted author, but I have a hard enough time getting my own advisor to respond to my emails. Typically these emails go into the inbox abyss and are never heard from again.

Instead, what if there were a mini-forum at the bottom of the article’s webpage where I could simply write “Hi, I have a question, how did you calibrate your instrument?” Then all the authors get a little ping saying “someone has a question about your paper” and one of them could come answer it. The benefit here being that it is open. Anyone can see this communication and if anyone else has the same question about their instrument calibration, the answer will always be there on the page under a Communication and Correspondence heading.

The other benefit is that even if the authors don’t respond to my question, someone else could still come by and say “Hey, I don’t know exactly what type of calibration they used but here is what I do in my lab…”

Something like this would not be difficult to implement (from reddit.com/r/askscience)

Space for Files – Not Just More Paper:

With data storage being ridiculously cheap and manuscripts freed from the confines of physical paper, publishers still only limit authors to a Supplemental Information paper. Supplemental information is useful, but it’s akin to just saying “here are some more pages for you to write on.”

This is the digital age folks – what if I want to share information and resources that isn’t appropriate to put in a digital paper format? I have loads of stuff that other researchers interested in my paper and who want to reproduce my results or my technique might be interested in such as: calculation results for various molecules, labview code I wrote that runs my laser pulse-shaper with an evolutionary algorithm, or the full crystal structure of a molecule in an easy to download and open file format. These are things that I can’t just plop down in a PDF and call it “supplemental information.” Give me a little tiny bit of web server space to share these extra files with interested colleagues.

How exactly am I supposed to fit this into a Supporting Information pdf?

Open Notebook Support:

The open notebook was an idea put forth a few years ago. The basic concept is that published papers only really disseminate knowledge about the minority of experiments that worked. There is a large volume of data and information about experiments that didn’t work but isn’t made available anywhere. This so-called “Dark Data” (ominous!) is extremely useful for other researchers, who may end up wasting time and resources accidentally repeating failed experiments that the authors did not talk about.

260 x 62


Similar to the above point, there’s essentially unlimited page space online, so there’s no reason publishers couldn’t provide authors with additional space to talk about failed experiments and dead ends. While the “Supplemental Information” section provided to authors is nice, I think there could be a more organized place to put up all the information that could potentially be useful for other researchers.


These are just a few ideas I had. What all can you come up with? How can science communication be improved by digital tools?

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4 responses »

  1. Kathryn says:

    Good ideas! Re: @FakeElsevier’s point, I’d also suggest that the publisher’s secondary job is to provide a structure for review and, therefore, a (sometimes imperfect) filter.

    I’d be interested to hear your opinion of our new-ish Direct Submission track, PNAS Plus: http://www.pnas.org/site/misc/pnasplus_faq.shtml

  2. Joe Kraus says:

    For storing data that is affiliated with journal articles and your research, one could us http://datadryad.org or http://figshare.com.

  3. Carol Vallett says:

    Teaching “research in the digital age” online this fall aimed at mainly education or social science students. Some good info here for our week on ‘how can I share my knowledge?”. Also, have you looked into http://www.researchgate.net

  4. Thanks a lot from Drumnacanvy ;)

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