The once and future of scientific publishing

Science as an act of public participation

The idea of open science began with The Royal Society of London, an idiosyncratic groups of talkative 17th century Gentlemen Scientists. Mostly they were the middling upper class – third sons of lords, a group that had more free time than responsibility. They met in a hall to talk about science, read letters from absent colleagues and perform experiments in front of each other. They were so taken with the idea that a theory should be judged on its merits rather than the status of the person advancing it that they started a journal in 1665- the Philosophical Transactions- whose articles were chosen by a review of expert peers rather than the eminence of the presenter. The Royal Society’s motto is “Nullius in Verba,” Latin for “On the words of no one.”

Since then science changed all of society, and the barriers to understanding and participation have steadily declined. Charles Darwin was probably the last of the Gentlemen Scientists. He published The Origin of the Species just 10 years before Nature first rolled off the press as one of the early modern scientific journals. From there the standards of rigor would solidify, and science would move into the academy. The 19th century was the death knell of the class system barrier to scientific participation. This changed how we fundamentally saw science- no longer the pursuit of Great (Smart) Men of history. Progress became the many dots of published research that made up the pointillist portrait of the natural world, conveyed largely by the journal. The next century exploded as a result.

A search on the Nature website alone turns up references to over 370,000 articles across a meager 72 journals. The largest publisher, Elsevier publishes over 2200 journals1. Elsevier’s motto, which dates back to the 17th century, is “Non solus,” Latin for “not alone.” It’s a beautiful motto for the 400 year old peer review system. Science required a community, it could only really happens when we are not alone.

The net brought this community to a new place, a place where a layer of mediation (publishers) can be safely removed. This is the Open Access movement. Open Access is about scientific publishing being quickly posted online, freely available to all comers. It’s peer reviewed in some cases, not in others.

Compared to the rich history of the Royal Society and Elsevier, the world of Open Access journals is tiny and new. But the internet is changing the space between scientists, which in time will change the shape of science entirely. According to there at 753 open archives of research, and many of those are small archives with little more than minutes of local scientific society meetings. The largest of these,, boasts 388,000 articles2, but no peer-review. started as a “preprint” area, but evolved into the place where physics and math can iterate quickly, making math and physics into a conversation, and the conversation is vibrant. Formal peer review is replaced by constant peer interest. Into this environment came Grisha Perelman’s proof of the PoincarĂ© conjecture. The unlikely proof, along his refusal of the Fields Medal captured the media’s imagination. A portrait of a sensitive and grumpy mathematician came out, someone unwilling to submit to the social processes of science for personal reasons. It didn’t matter how valid those reasons were if it kept him out of the literature- generally, that’s the end of the story. But this time we didn’t have to do without his brilliant math. Importantly, in this story, Perelman isn’t the beneficiary of Open publishing; the rest of us are.

But Open Access publishing isn’t just the subscription model sans subscription fees. It’s a different way of doing science when anyone can potentially point an RSS reader at the latest work, from eminent to downright dodgy. They can mark it up, discuss it, blog it, cross reference it, and even integrate it into their world view- and then head off to breakfast.

It’s jarring, even shocking, to be disrupted this way, and to many it looks like a revolt against the publishers of journals. Historical context suggests something different; that perhaps wide dissemination and opening of the process is just part of the natural progression of scientific dialogue. This step, like each before it, takes advantage of the technology and social shifts of the time, and each step has accelerated the progress and widened the breadth of science. And every step has been scary for those who went to the Academy for stability, as well as the euphoric high of understanding.

For scientists in the developing world, or outside the university system, or just those hungry for speed, it’s resources like that have made them “Non solus.” This is touted as one of the triumphs of Open Access, that people outside the usual sphere of science can finally get the latest research. But in fact, it’s the community of science that benefits the most by swelling their ranks.

Taking research out of the segregating world of the of the journal invites the general public to participate in the act of science. They are no long safely outside the walls of the 19th century’s privileged classes or the 20th century’s academia. They are going to watch and comment. They are going to help, and get in the way. Science trolls will harass legitimate work, celebrity pressure will push publishing popular results on popular topics. Rituals of scientific professionalism will become archaic, the status derived from publishing itself will muddy. But it will all be worth it: every endeavor of research with be at last ‘Non solus’ – no one is alone on the internet. With tools for data analysis and statistical modeling falling into everyone’s hands, novel patterns impossible to see in the walled gardens of journals will emerge. Amateurs whose only qualification is interest will transform every discipline they touch. The public will study science and science will study the public. They will delight each other, they will horrify each other with misappropriation, they will drive each other until they are so fast and wide they are one thing. It will be hectic and unstable. Newly opened doors will require new gatekeepers. What the open form of science will bring us is as beyond our imagination as current daily life would be to Darwin. Here the culture of technology informs the culture of science: this is what open interconnectedness has already done to tech.

Perhaps the most important change will be generational. Children growing up in an environment of open science will have a fundamental scientific literacy that we who have learned to love science like a second language will never fully be able to experience like the native speakers. Not all children, but certainly those that lean that way. The natural reasoning of our grandchildren will baffle us as much as the computer literacy of our children has.

It was a radical departure for science from the appeal to authority to the idea of experimentation and collaboration- a wildly egalitarian idea for the 17th century. To “Nullius in Verba,” (On the words of no one), Open Access might add “Omnium Iudicio”, or “to the judgement of all” – the wild idea of the 21st. Summing up from my 2006 Seed piece: science in the 21st century will be vandalized and common, and better for it.

1. 2006 numbers.
2. Haven’t updated these numbers either. Suffice to say, a lot.