Recently I was sitting at café Tryst in Washington D.C. along with Mendeley’s co-founders and a coffee house full of hipsters, Georgetown students, tourists, and a few politicos. In retrospect, perhaps this was the only setting possible to be discussing the future of research and our small part in it. We were surrounded by the common citizens who depend on the outputs of science, but had little to no power in changing its course for their benefit. More pointedly, they had no clue that science is being held back by the very people who are supposed to be advancing it.
We came to the conclusion that technology is finally at a point that if we don’t use it now, then we are holding back the progress of science. And what exactly are we to use technology on? Open science/data/access.
By our own hands
To understand how we (“we” meaning the research community) got here, we have to first briefly remember how the dissemination of science came to be the way it is. The dominant mode of communicating research results is through peer-reviewed literature. This dates back to more than 300 years ago when scholarly societies formed and needed a way to present their findings. This has evolved into the well-known journal system that we have today. This model for communicating results has served science quite well. I have no doubt that it will continue to do so, but given the technical abilities we have today, is it still the best way forward 100% of the time?
Let’s start with an ideal situation for the progress of science. For advancement not to be held in check there are arguably two requirements:
1) Research results (i.e. raw data) would need to be made available the moment it is created.
2) The write up of those results, as long as they are scientifically sound, are published immediately and made accessible to all. (For more insight, the Panton Principles go even further.)
For the past three centuries those two requirements could not be satisfied due to a lack of technology, but why are we not fulfilling them now? We have the tech (i.e. Internet), so something else is going on. It is easy to place the blame on publishers trying to protect business models, but that would be misplaced judgment. The business models for Open Access and Open Data are there, trust me (or go ask PLoS). Publishers are already experimenting with the models, but they are waiting for something before going full force. They are waiting for us, the researchers.
We could choose to publish in only Open Access. We could choose to reward tenure for Open Data. We could choose to only reward publications or data that are proven to be reused and make either a marked economic or research impact. Instead, we choose to follow a model that promotes prestige as the primary objective as outlined by Cameron Neylon in “Practical steps toward open science.”
History, I suspect, will look upon our society and practice with regards to scientific knowledge-share as we similarly do now with the Dark Ages. Each time we hold back data or publish research that isn’t immediately open to all, we have chosen to be on the wrong side of history.
One shining example of what Open Data surrounding Alzheimer’s research can accomplish was recently profiled in the NYTimes. Sadly, this is more the exception than the rule though.
Not to be one that criticizes without a plan, what can be done then? We could wait for policy changes from the top, but that is neither a timely, nor guaranteed solution. A growing feeling amongst some in the community is that the rise of impact factors and author metrics, such as the h-index, have left most younger researchers without a choice in the matter. Either you publish in a high impact journal, which is often closed access, or you don’t get tenure. That, in turn, results in an increasing time lag in getting research published. Researchers resubmit to “lower tiered” journals only after being rejected by the top, a process that takes months at best and years at worst. It is not uncommon to see research that is already two years old before it sees the light of day. This cannot be good for the progress of science.
“Article-level metrics” (ALM) is one step toward weaning the addiction that we have with journal impact factors. Here, we disassociate the significance of the article from the prestige of the journal that it is packaged in. PLoS has done an excellent job in advancing this new trend. In theory, ALM could reduce competition for top-tiered journals and hence promote faster communication of primary research. ALM alone does not guarantee increased Open Access or Open Data though. For that, we need more.
One way to promote the sharing of knowledge, and thus be on the right side of history, is through reputation metrics. Unlike previous measurements for impact though, this would be designed to reward researchers who contribute to Open Data and science online. Without that principle, impact factors and author indices are blocking, not helping research. Some would go as far to say they should be abandoned. To be successful then, certain conditions would have to be satisfied:
1) Avoid obscurity. Reputation metrics cannot be hidden in the closet with last season’s wardrobe. The obvious choice to promote is through search and recommendation engines.
And that leads to the second and perhaps most controversial condition…
2) Design the system to reward participation and penalize omission in Open Science. It must bring researchers who are either hesitant, ignorant, or opposed to participating online to have no other choice. The antithesis of current impact measures.
Platforms such as Mendeley can have a hand in meeting both the first and second conditions. Mendeley is more than just a reference manager, it is also a system that aggregates the metadata of millions of documents and provides authors the opportunity to promote their works. We are now taking this one step further having created the beginnings of an author analytics platform.
Those who promote their works will be rewarded in way of discovery either via our own search engine or through their own researcher profiles. Starting this Wednesday, researcher profiles will show statistics based upon the self-authored works placed into the “My Publications” folder. A “Publication Statistics” snapshot appears on the right side of the profile and shows readership, publication page views, and downloads.
We are not naïve
A publication snapshot is nothing earth shattering and it has a long way to grow. It has many valid concerns, such as gaming that must be accounted for. Fundamentally though, this is not just another metric to base the next grant or tenure selection upon, although eventually it could/should be used that way. To the point, this is about being on the right side of history in promoting Open Science.
Those researchers who openly and quickly publish research or data for download will be rewarded.* Those who do not will adapt or risk falling into obscurity. As we wait for policy changes to be enacted by the top, we must act at the bottom to encourage a behavioral change in how we share our knowledge. I think we owe that to the students, hipsters, and citizens in coffee shops everywhere.
Which side of history will you be on?
*Exactly how that is rewarded through our search and recommendation engines has yet to be implemented, as we need to balance relevance as much as reputation.