Open Access

Wikipedia as a model for scientific publishing

The Open Access movement started with the idealistic goal of making research results available to scientists who could not afford the increasing subscription costs of journals. It was picked up by funding organizations — including governments — who developed a principle that they should have free access to the results of the research they fund.

Researchers themselves are the force of conservatism in the conversion. We’re so hung up on the prestige that traditional journals have achieved that we don’t want to switch to new ones. To defend their conservatism, arguments about quality differences have been advanced, even though there is no structural or principled reason that OA journals should have lower quality than traditional journals.

This has led to a tremendous side-tracking of the OA project, leading many OA advocates and journals to get involved in defensive arguments about why OA is as good as traditional publishing. As I’ve noted in many talks and the occasional blog, as good as doesn’t win the race. OA has to be better and that’s where the discussion should be. (See, for example an interview with me and others at Open Access + Social Media = Competitive Advantage or the blog entry New approaches to quality control in publishing.)

When I speak on this topic, I often advance a “crazy” extreme, inspired by Wikipedia. Some of those ideas now emerging elsewhere and even getting some traction.

The Wikipedia model would create dynamic articles with traceable histories. Permission to edit could easily be enhanced from what exists for Wikipedia itself. Those colleagues with editorial license could go in to modify the article. What kind of modifications could they make?

  • Colleague-editors could add references to other work.
  • They could re-write paragraphs for enhanced clarity.
  • New sections could be added, e.g. comparing results to other work.
  • Discussion sections could be supplemented with yet unseen implications or discussion of the position of the work in the field.
  • Links could be added to relevant data sets and more. (For extensive discussion of visions of this type, see Cameron Neylon’s blog, Science in the Open, especially entries such as Network Enabled Research or (S)low impact research.)

When I paint this picture in talks — a picture of dissemination that is better for science and better for society — I usually get bemused smiles and ultimately resistance from researchers, largely based on issues around attribution and quality control. I think those concerns are solvable, but that isn’t my point here.

What’s exciting today is that this kind of vision is being discussed more and more. A recent example getting considerable attention was discussed over at Retraction Watch. RW reports on a new journal called Disruptive science and technology — which looks very exciting — even if they have an appalling gender balance on their board. (Yes, Clayton Christensen, it matters.) The article RW discusses is called Knowledge network for authoring, reviewing, editing, searching, and using scientific or other credible information.

The abstract from the article includes this tantalizing preview.

The existing paradigm of the scientific literature—individual authoring and editing, parallel review, a format that allows only reading—has not changed in over a century. The barriers to authorship, use, and the creation of scientific works are significant. We developed a new literature format based on an interactive network to address the needs of all parties, from author to user. We began by structuring the writing of text and data for a discipline’s needs. Five report types were created, with menus for specific terms and data to allow online, simultaneous, multiauthor writing and editing. A new measurable peer-review process was created. Users can ask questions of reports, and data from multiple reports can be combined. […] We believe that this format will radically alter the creation and use of credible knowledge for the benefit of society. The technology is disruptive to the current publication model and creates new learning, research, and professional opportunities.

Publishing is about to change. Radically. Disruptively. The knowledge network could be a model. Wikipedia surely is an inspiration.

These change all have one focus and one purpose, namely the need for much better dissemination of scientific results. What improvements do you most look forward to?

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more


1 Comment

  • Leslie Carr says:

    The nice thing about Wikipedia as a model is that it already demonstrates all the political infighting and egocentric protectionism that an academic system would need to support. The big step forward will be the transparency – all the arguments will be in public on the “Talk” pages instead of in private communications between reviewers and journal editors.

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