Is Science Communication Returning to Its Roots?

Former BMJ editor Richard Smith nicely delivers the argument:

A compelling piece in the Economist argues that social media are returning news to the “more vibrant, freewheeling, and discursive ways of the pre-industrial era” and that newspapers will prove to have been a historical aberration. The same, I think, will be true of scientific journals.

His argument parallels much recent discussion about the closed-in stasis of much traditional scientific publication and how it’s being challenged by the open-science movement.

Scientific journals began in the 17th century with the French Journal des Savants and the British Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Before that and even afterwards scientists went to meetings and presented their studies. The assembled scientists would then discuss and critique the studies. We can imagine the intensity, energy, and passion of those meetings. This was the original peer review: immediate and open.

Then the 19th century brought the journals that still dominate today — the New England Journal of Medicine, the Lancet, BMJ in medicine; Nature and Science in general sciences. Their dominance let them develop the closed, high-cost model centered on the paper, which I explored in Free Science: One Paper at a Time.

Smith again:

Many find unacceptable the domination of a few journals and the huge profits made by some publishers from the scientific value produced by others, and the open access has begun for these and other reasons. Open access articles are increasing rapidly, and just in the past few years we have seen the appearance of many “megajournals” like PLoS One and BMJ Open, which are aiming to publish rapidly after light peer review that does not attempt the largely impossible job of  “spotting winners” but leaves readers to decide. Scientific blogs are becoming more important, and molecular biologists have for some time been leading the way by sharing their results immediately with each other through the internet.

We are slowly, as I’ve written many times before, moving to post-publication peer review where the scientific community judges what matters—not bewigged and gathered in one elegant room as in the 18th century but connected globally through the internet. It’s back to our roots.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *