The “brute force” of web-enabled data manipulation and knowledge sharing is transforming scienceby Martin Rees / October 20, 2010 / Leave a comment
Stars in their eyes: an interactive project, Galaxy Zoo, lets amateurs join in the huge task of classifying millions of galaxies
During the 1660s, the newly-founded Royal Society became a focus for scientific dialogue and a clearing house for ideas. Its secretary, Henry Oldenburg, wrote and received hundreds of letters from all over Europe on all aspects of “natural philosophy”—what we would now call science.
Oldenburg soon decided that letters were not the most efficient way to communicate with his international network and in 1665 he started a journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which has been published ever since. Over the centuries it has included Isaac Newton’s researches on light, Benjamin Franklin’s experiments on lightning and a report on Volta’s first battery. It set the style for the tens of thousands of academic journals published today—what scientists call “the literature.” Journals were plainly a real advance in the 1660s: a step change in the efficiency of communication across Europe. But it’s equally clear in the 2010s that printed journals are anachronistic. So what should replace them?
Like so many other publishers, we at the Royal Society are trying to persuade subscribers to our dozen journals to drop the print versions in favour of online editions. Apart from the benefits in terms of carbon footprint and cost-saving, the online editions offer readers more in terms of searching, commenting, linking, supplementary datasets, images and films. Most readers prefer them for these reasons. We are also exploring applications for mobile phones and other handheld devices.
But the benefits of online journals extend beyond cost-saving and reader satisfaction. They are changing the way scientific research is done. For a start, it is now much easier to find published research, initially via specialist search engines such as PubMed for medical science, and later using more general tools (Google accounts for almost 60 per cent of referrals to the journals on the RS website).
Of course, even electronic journals cost money to produce: the costs of editing, and of organising peer review by expert referees must still be covered. So either the readers have to pay (individually or via their institutional libraries), or the authors (or their employers) have to. Much as before, this leaves problems for independent authors not supported by grants or a commercial employer. In universities, the online journal archive Jstor has been a boon. But lone researchers still have to…