The invention of the scientific journal in the 17th and 18th centuries helped create an institution that incentivizes scientists to share their knowledge with the entire world. But scientific journals were a child of the paper-and-ink media of their time. Scientific papers represent only a tiny fraction of the useful knowledge that scientists have to share with the world:
Enabled by a new media form, the internet, the last few years have seen a modest expansion in the range of knowledge that can be published and recognized by the scientific community:
However, there are many other types of useful knowledge that scientists have, and could potentially share with the world. Examples include questions, ideas, leads, folklore knowledge, notebooks, opinions of other work, workflows, simple explanations of basic concepts, and so on.
Each of these types of knowledge can be the basis for new online tools that further expand the range of what can be published by scientists:
It’s fun to think about what tools would best serve the needs associated with each type of knowledge. This is already starting to happen with tools and ideas like open notebook science, the science exchange, SciRate, and the Open Wetware wiki.
Some people will object that this kind of expansion is not desirable, that the last thing scientists need is an expansion in the range of information they deal with. Surely we are already overburdened?
Underlying this apparent problem is an opportunity to develop tools to assist scientists in finding relevant information, and to ensure that what they publish — their questions, ideas, and so on — is seen by those people who will most benefit. Ideally, the result will be not only a great expansion in the range of what is published, but also a great improvement in the quality of information that we encounter.
(This is, incidentally, a good argument in favour of strong open access, namely, that building high-quality information-finding tools will require open access to the entire scientific literature. In a gated web, Google Search and similar tools could not function, for they rely on the collective intelligence of the entire community of people publishing on the web. By accepting closed journals, scientists are condemning themselves to relatively low-quality information management tools.)
There are, of course, major cultural barriers to acceptance of these new tools. At present, there are few incentives to make use of new ideas like open notebook science. Why blog your ideas online, when someone else could be working on a paper on the same subject? This isn’t speculation, it’s already happening, and sometimes the blog posts are better – but try telling that to a tenure review committee.
What this means is that in addition to building new tools for each of these kinds of knowledge, we also need to provide ways of incentivizing the use of those tools, so scientists are motivated to move information out of their heads and labs, and onto the network, where it can catalyse new tools and new discoveries. This means measuring the contributions made with those new tools, and working on legitimizing those measures within the scientific community. This will take time, but it can be done. Visionary computer scientist Danny Hillis has pointed out that problems which seem impossible over two years are often trivial over fifty – I suspect this is how we’ll look back at the current changes going on in how science is done.