Will a new literature format “radically alter” how scientists write, review, and read papers?
A group of authors at a Pittsburgh company have proposed a new way to write, review, and read scientific papers that they claim will “radically alter the creation and use of credible knowledge for the benefit of society.”
From the abstract of a paper appearing in the new Mary Liebert journal Disruptive Science and Technology, which, according to a press release, will “publish out-of-the-box concepts that will improve the way we live”:
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. A topic search is associated with automated research tools. We built a prototype that was built and refined based on continuous feedback from surveys, expert panels, presentations, and other feedback mechanisms. In continuous development, the free network World Science (www.world-sci.com) was launched for global beta testing in April 2011, and is now used worldwide. Reports have been written, reviewed, and published within the network or in other journals.
One of the aspects of World Science that caught our eye is that it would allow users to ask questions of articles they were reading. From the site’s FAQ:
9. How do I ask direct questions of articles?
For any article published in World Science, you will see a list of interactive features below the title. Click on the drop-down menu for a list of available questions and answers will be provided from the text of the article.
We were particularly interested in how World Science would change peer review. Also from the FAQ:
10. Why is the peer-review process of World Science unique?
The process is unique for several reasons. First, reviewers provide their comments inside the article itself, below each of the questions within each section. Authors can then revise their work directly. Second, authors “grade” each of the review comments as to whether the comment was helpful or not, the revision made or not made. The editor can summarize these for each reviewer.
The paper’s corresponding author is Douglas Kondziolka, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh. Kondziolka and his co-authors are all founders or consultants to SciencEngines, Inc., which created World Science. They make bold claims about their proposal:
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.
So we asked a few leading journal editors, who’ve justifiably made a name for themselves cleaning up the scientific literature, for their takes on what this would mean for journals. Steven Shafer, editor-in-chief of Anesthesia & Analgesia, told us:
There are numerous novel approaches to publication that challenge traditional publication. All of them use Internet technology to blend authors, readers, and reviewers. The extraordinary success of Wikipedia, and the ensuing demise of the traditional printed encyclopedia, is an example of how a disruptive technology can quickly supplant an established paradigm.
The proposal by Kondzoilka is an experiment. It will succeed if it advances the creation and dissemination of new knowledge. It will fail if it offers nothing beyond what is currently captured in the Wikipedia model of publishing. The hundreds of millions of authors and readers who turn to the Internet daily will determine the outcome of the experiment. The experiment is worthwhile, and I commend the authors for their innovation.
Ferric Fang, editor-in-chief of Infection and Immunity, also noted the similarity to Wikipedia, but was a bit more dubious. Fang told Retraction Watch he’s seen “an increasing number of proposals for alternatives to conventional peer-reviewed scientific journals (e.g., community-based evaluation, blinded review).” He says this one
sounds rather like a wiki, which can be very useful as a repository of conventional knowledge, but I am skeptical that it would function well for actual science. The proposal seems to ignore many of the current functions of the scientific literature, such as the filtering and prioritization of ideas, establishment of priority, storage of primary research data, and measurement of productivity. One need only to consider that there are in excess of 50,000,000 research papers to realize the importance of the filter function. Curation and moderation of a scientific knowledge network would be a nightmare. How would one prevent contributors who disagree with each other from repeatedly editing the other’s entries?
I recall Churchill’s famous comment about democracy– peer review might be the worst way to manage the scientific literature, except for all the alternatives. Although, as you know, I would like to reform science, I guess I am not a revolutionary.