Scientific American’s open web experiment

Scientific American is undertaking a social web experiment in its article Science 2.0: Great New Tool, or Great Risk?, by M. Mitchell Waldrop (article dated 9 January 2008). The article addresses whether wikis, blogs and other collaborative web technologies are the start of a “new era of science”. The article itself, however, is a draft: not yet formally published in the magazine, the author encourages readers to comment on it before he revises it for final publication.

In the draft article, scientists and scientific publishers provide their views of collaborative science, in which researchers are posting drafts, preprints and other information online before formal publication of their work, and soliciting comments from fellow-scientists and other readers. But is “using blogs and social networks for your serious work….. an open invitation to have your online lab notebooks vandalized—or worse, have your best ideas stolen and published by a rival?” Or does competition turn into cooperation?

Issues of due credit and scooping are clearly uppermost in the minds of many who are nervous about such projects. This is countered by Jean-Claude Bradley’s Open Notebook system, in which “everything goes online: experimental protocols, successful outcomes, failed attempts, even discussions of papers being prepared for publication……. The time-stamps on every entry not only establish priority, but allow anyone to track the contributions of every person, even in a large collaboration.”

There are more than 70 comments from readers to the draft article at time of writing this post (17 January), many of them related to accreditation, priority, trustworthiness, and filtering, all central to the concept of peer review. One example, from a pseudonymous commenter: “there is a rather less savoury side to Web 2.0 as well. You just need to look at the scorn recently and unjustifiably heaped upon one surfing physicist for having the temerity to suggest that string theory might not be the only way of looking at the universe, and weblogs were the primary conduit for that scorn.”

Thomas Lemberger adds his view: "Are we not going to be submerged by this avalanche of details, data, preliminary results? Who manages to keep up even with the classical “science 1.0” literature? Who manages to keep up with the hundreds of blog RSS feeds? How can the relevant information be retrieved, aggregated and evaluated in this ocean of data?" Here is Jim Morris’s view: “It’s already standard for many scientists to put their draft papers on their web sites. This is a more plausible if less amazing practice than putting lab notebooks online. Why not build on that to build online journals that start from those drafts to produce well-refereed papers?”

There are many more comments on the article, but perhaps the last word goes to another pseudonymous entry: “This whole argument reminds me of what you’d read in articles about Linux five to ten years ago. Open source was supposedly the future, and soon to replace Windows on the desktop. Well, the rest of the world outside of the enthusiasts couldn’t be bothered. They had work to do, and didn’t have the massive amounts of time required by such things (and the tools discussed here are huge time sinks)…… Often it can take months, if not years, to realize the true significance of your data. I worked with a mouse mutant where it took us over a year to figure out the cause of death. Putting your raw data out, before you have figured it out thoroughly, is just asking for someone else to make that leap instead of you.”


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    Jean-Claude Bradley said:

    Concerning the last quote in your summary:

    “Putting your raw data out, before you have figured it out thoroughly, is just asking for someone else to make that leap instead of you.”

    I realize that the author was trying to express a negative viewpoint. But to me that is a major benefit. All I want is attribution to whatever data of mine they use.

    In my entire career I don’t think I’ve ever “figured out any of my research thoroughly”. I may have come to grips with parts of it and made some useful conclusions but I have no doubt that more eyes on the data would have revealed more.

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