THE rise of citizen journalism, and of businesses like Uber and Airbnb, has seen traditional structures and economic models shattered across a swathe of industries and fields of human endeavour.
The so-called digital disruption has hit scientific publishing too, though the world’s biggest journal publishers are mostly still trying to cling to their outdated models of revenue generation and control.
For over a decade now, many in the scientific community have been questioning why, in the age of information sharing, the results of publicly funded research still take so long to be released – and even then are often locked away behind journal paywalls.
New digital platforms have certainly emerged – the Public Library of Science journals, for example, have published more than 140 000 open access, peer-reviewed articles.
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For researchers in mathematics and physics, the arXiv website hosted by Cornell University has for 25 years been publishing preprint articles uploaded by researchers.
It now boasts more than a million articles, many of which have gone on to be published in mainstream journals, according to a recent article in The Economist.
The biological sciences have been slower to take advantage of the emerging digital possibilities. A similar resource for the life sciences, bioRxiv, was only established in 2013 and currently holds around 3000 articles, The Economist says.
Articles submitted to the site are not peer-reviewed or edited, but do undergo basic screening for plagiarism and offensive or non-scientific content.
Governments and research organisations are pushing to make findings available more widely. Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council, for example, has mandated that the findings of any research it funds be openly accessible.
It has also dispensed with the often criticised “journal impact factor” as a measure of the quality of research. The measure sees researchers get extra brownie points for publishing in journals deemed to be high impact, further entrenching the gatekeeper role of those publications and providing a disincentive for researchers to publish more quickly elsewhere.
The recent Zika virus crisis has brought new urgency to discussions about open (and speedy) sharing of research findings.
“The arguments for sharing data, and the consequences of not doing so, have been thrown into stark relief by the Ebola and Zika outbreaks … there is an imperative on all parties to make any information available that might have value in combating the crisis,” the statement said.
Journal signatories committed to making their Zika-related content free and said they would not penalise researchers who shared their data during the crisis by ruling them ineligible for later publication.
Does that go far enough?
Professor Stephen Curry, a biologist at Imperial College, London, thinks not, describing the move as “a sticking plaster that does little to assuage the underlying maladies of scientific publication”.
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“The real difficulty for the scientific community is that we remain tied to a publishing system that retards the dissemination of information because of its overwhelming preoccupation with using publications to award academic credit,” he writes in a blog post for the Guardian.
“The central problem,” he says, “is that our research ecosystem provides no incentives for publishing reliably, rapidly or openly.”
Initiatives like bioRxiv are trying to change that, but they need a critical mass of researchers to get on board before they will have any real impact.
In the meantime, some scientists are taking matters into their own hands.
In recognition of the Zika crisis, virologist Dr David O’Connor is currently taking the unusual step of sharing daily data online from his study of the virus in pregnant macaque monkeys.
“Never tried sharing data like this before,” said a tweet from his lab at the University of Wisconsin when he started the experiment in February. “Feels like walking into a country for the first time. Exciting, but don’t know what to expect.”
A month on, Dr O’Connor told The Economist the experience of sharing data in this way had been “universally positive”.
Let’s hope that inspires more scientists to adopt the sharing approach.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medical writer.