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Where will the key ideas shaping the future of scientific publishing come from?

by Michael Nielsen on May 10, 2015

Stefan Janusz from the Royal Society asked me to comment briefly on where I’d look for new ideas about the future of scientific publishing. Here’s my response, crossposted to the Royal Society’s blog about scientific publishing.

It’s tempting to assume the key ideas will come from leading scientists, journal publishers, librarians, policy makers, and so on.

While these are all important groups, I don’t think they’re going to invent the key ideas behind the future of scientific publishing. That will be done primarily by two groups of outsiders: exceptionally creative user interface designers, and people who design group experiences.

Let me unpack both those statements.

The first important group is user interface designers. Ultimately, scientific journals are a user interface to humanity’s scientific knowledge, and people such as Henry Oldenburg, Johannes Gutenberg, and Aldus Manutius were all interface designers.

Now, many people working in science don’t understand the importance or difficulty of user interface design. It’s tempting to think it’s either about “making things pretty” or about “making things easy to use”. And, in fact, much work on interface design doesn’t go much deeper than those tasks. But the designers I’m talking about are doing something much deeper. They’re attempting to invent powerful new representations for knowledge, representations that will let us manipulate and comprehend knowledge in new ways.

Think, for example, of how the invention of user interface ideas such as the hyperlink and the search box have transformed how we relate to knowledge. Or take a look at some of Bret Victor’s beautiful designs for changing how we think about systems and mathematics. In a more playful vein, look at Marco ten Bosch’s gorgeous game Miegakure, which challenges people to learn to think in four spatial dimensions. Or consider the way programming languages such as Coq and Logo change the way people interface to mathematical knowledge.

The second group I named is people who design group experiences. In addition to being user interfaces to scientific knowledge, journals are also a medium for collective intelligence. The design of media for collective intelligence isn’t yet a widely recognized field. But there are many people doing amazing things in this area. Just as a random sample, not necessarily related to science, take a look at Ned Gulley’s work on the Mathworks programming competition. Or economist Robin Hanson on idea futures. Or even people such as the musician Bobby McFerrin, who understands crowd behaviour as well as anyone. Or Jane McGonigal and Elan Lee’s work on creating games based on “puzzles and challenges that no single person could solve on their own”. This broad vein of work is a key direction from which important new fundamental ideas will ultimately come.

Let me finish by identifying a questionable assumption implicit in the question “Where will the future of scientific publishing come from?” The assumption is that there will be a single future for scientific publishing, a kind of jazzed-up version of the scientific article, and it’s simply up to enterprising publishers to figure out what it is.

I believe that, if things go well, there will instead be a proliferation of media types. Some will be informal, cognitive media for people to think and carry out experiments with. Look, for example, at some of Peter Norvig’s ipython notebooks. Others will be collaborative environments for building up knowledge – look at Tim Gowers’s and Terry Tao’s use of blogs and wikis to solve mathematical problems collaboratively. And some will be recognizable descendants of the “paper of record” model common in journals today. So what I hope we’ll see is a much richer and more varied ecosystem, and one that continues to change and improve rapidly over many decades

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  1. Hey Michael,

    Super interesting post and nice ideas! I totally agree that user experience and group experience will play key roles in determining the future of scholarly communication.

    My point of contention is that there should be multiple different systems. As I argue here ( and in the paper it is about, having more than one or a few systems divides the time and effort of the individual. Both for the individual and for the teams designing the experience. two names and passwords, two profiles to maintain, two networks to build up. It is just not worth it most of the time. :p

    At least that is what I worry about (that people will not use all of them). even now, I have accounts in several of the teams (e.g., researchgate, academia, winnower, scienceopen, SJS, OSF) but I really dont and cant keep up with all of them. 🙁

    Come join that group by the way, that is where I found your nice article! 😀

  2. wladimir permalink

    “That will be done primarily by two groups of outsiders: exceptionally creative user interface designers, and people who design group experiences.”

    An alternative scenario: certain (ahem) scientists or publishers get so obsessed with these ideas that they become designers. 🙂

    Your point stands, though. The scientific enterprise doesn’t have the resources (time, money, inclination) to tackle this in any official or fruitful way. In terms of “product”, the future of scientific publishing is something people don’t yet know they want. We’ll have to make (many) more and (much?) better prototypes for that to happen. Ad astra per aspera, etcetera.

  3. I agree with this entirely. People like Tim Berners-Lee and Vannevar Bush were working as designers when they did their work that contributed to the modern web.

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