By guest blogger Robin Blume-Kohout
In 2005, Slate published twelve essays on “How to reinvent higher education”. The opening paragraphs of one, by Alison Gopnik, still burn in my mind:
I’m a cognitive scientist who is also a university professor. There is a staggering contrast between what I know about learning from the lab and the way I teach in the classroom. … I know that children, and even adults, learn about the everyday world around them in much the way that scientists learn. …Almost none of this happens in the average university classroom, including mine. In lecture classes, the teacher talks and the students write down what the teacher says. In seminars, the students write down what other students say. This is, literally, a medieval form of learning…
In short, we are screwing up — and we should know better.
Scientific publishing — the primary means by which we communicate with other scientists — is in the same boat:
- We’re doing it badly,
- Our methods are medieval,
- We should know better.
Technically, point #2 is unfair. Scientific publishing dates from the 1660s, when Proceedings of the Royal Society emerged from Henry Oldenburg‘s voluminous scientific correspondence. If you wanted to show off your research in 1665, you wrote a letter to Henry. When he got it (a month or two later), he forwarded it to someone who could tell him whether it was any good. If the referee liked it, then (after a few more month-long postal delays), Henry read your letter out loud to the Royal Society, and it got recorded in the Proceedings.
These days, it’s quite different. Specifically:
- We write letters in LaTeX, and email them,
- There are so many journals that nobody reads most of them,
- Henry doesn’t read your letter out loud.
The rest of the system is unchanged. This raises a bunch of questions, like “Why does publication take 6 months?”, “Why is it so expensive?”, and “Does anybody read journals, what with the arXiv?” I’m not going to discuss these questions, but if you’re interested, you might try the Wikipedia article on scientific journals. Which is a perfect example of why we should know better.
I’m not talking about the content. I’m talking about the article itself, and how I referenced it — with a hyperlink. I’ve given you incredible power. Quickly and easily, you can:
- Verify my sources,
- Find answers to questions I’ve raised — if you’re interested,
- Get more detailed explanations,
- Discover and explore related topics.
Enabling you this way is part of the core mission: The purpose of scientific communication is to educate, extensibly and efficiently. Education: After months of research, I publish a paper so that you can learn what I know — without all the hard work. Extensibility: I include proofs, arguments, figures, explanations, and citations — so that you can verify my work and place it in the context of prior work. Efficiency: Writing this way takes more months — but thousands of my colleagues can save months by reading my paper.
We are failing at efficiency, for Wikipedia illustrates a more efficient way of educating — or, if you prefer, a source for more efficient learning. I don’t mean that Wikipedia is The Answer. We need to build a new medium, replacing medieval features with the best features of Wikipedia. For instance,
- Hypertext revolutionizes scientific writing, by organizing content as a tree instead of a list. Articles and textbooks have a linear structure. To find a specific answer, I have to read (on average) half the text. In a hypertext environment like Wikipedia, I can search through a cluster of ideas for answers — even to questions I haven’t been able to formulate yet. Hyperlinking specifically enables…
- “Choose your own adventure” approaches to a body of work. Scientific papers represent a cluster of related ideas. Different readers, with different background knowledge, will benefit from different paths. A well-structured (and judiciously hyperlinked) electronic text can become the reader’s personalized guide. Parts of several such texts can be combined by a customized path, to form an entirely new text. This requires…
- Modular content, dividing a text into bite-sized chunks. Modularity also offers intrinsic benefits. One is reusability; a single explanation can be referenced in many contexts. Current scientific writing is necessarily terse. Hyperlinks and modularity allow the text to be larded with optional explanations, which clarify potential confusion without breaking the flow. Modularity also allows alternative approaches, providing the reader with multiple analyses of the same concept. Such alternatives are particularly useful when combined with…
- Distributed editing by a large community of contributors. This is a vast can of worms that I shan’t open here, but two things are clear. First, a forum for scientific communication cannot adopt Wikipedia’s “anyone can edit” motto. Second, the potential benefits of post-publication editing, combined with an unlimited pool of “editors”, are too great to ignore. Balancing these imperatives is an outstanding challenge, but a relatively uncontroversial technique is…
- Attached commentary, either critical or explanatory, by readers. Consider, for example, the Talmud, where post-publication analysis (the Gemara) attempts to clarify the original text (the Mishnah). More recently, commenting systems have proliferated on blogs and (with much, much less intellectual rigor) news-sites like Slashdot. In a scientific publishing context, commentary can
- correct mistakes, either technical or factual, in the original text,
- provide an alternative to a module that (the reader feels) could be improved,
- critique and question the original work,
- update older work in light of new research.
These points are not a prescription. They are a manifesto (“We can do better, see!”), and a plea (“Help make it better!”). Published scientific communications are the collective memory of scientists. If we cannot access it quickly and efficiently, we are effectively brain damaged. Improving our access makes us — quite simply — smarter. All we need to do is to use the computing tools before us intelligently.
We’ve taken first steps — the preprint arXiv, central repositories like PROLA, and online publishing by the likes of Nature. These are baby steps. We’re doing the same old thing a little better with new technology. Sooner or later, scientific communication is going to be restructured to really take advantage of what we can do now… and it’s going to make us (collectively) a lot smarter.
I can’t wait.