A question I sometimes hear which I find odd is “What’s the future of scientific journals?” Often – not always, but often – underlying the question is a presumption that there is a single future for journals. The point of view seems to be that we’ve had journals in the past, and now we have this interesting new medium – the internet – so the big question is how journals are going to evolve, or (if slightly more ambitious) what we’re going to replace them with?
This seems to me a peculiar point of view. The origin of the point of view seems to be the fact that paper is a static, relatively inflexible medium. There’s only a limited number of things you can do with paper and a printing press, so scientific publishing to date has ended up concentrated in just a few forms (journals, monographs, textbooks, and a few others). This monolithic character leads to a presumption that scientific communication will continue to evolve in a monolithic way.
The problem with this point of view is that computers and the network are extraordinarily flexible. If you believe AI enthusiasts, computers will eventually end up smarter than us, along pretty much every axis. Imagine a medium that’s smarter, more flexible, and faster than us. What could it be used to do? Of course, the dreams of the AI enthusiasts are quite some ways off. But even now, the internet is an extraordinarly flexible medium. Paper can’t even begin to compare: we’re talking about a single medium that supports World of Warcraft, Intellipedia (collaborative data sharing for spooks), and flash mobs for pillow fighters. We’re not going to have a single future for scientific journals; asking what THE scientific journal of the future will be makes no more sense than asking a programmer what THE program of the future will be. What we will have instead is an increasing number of ways of sharing scientific information, and, in many cases, of doing science. We’re seeing signs of this fragmentation already, from video journals to slide sharing services to all sorts of databases.
There will, of course, be some concentration in particular formats and platforms. Network effects in science are strong – we don’t make discoveries alone, we make them as part of a larger culture of discovery! – and this will drive the broad adoption of shared platforms (and, for that matter, of open standards). But there’s no reason at all to think that there will be just a single platform or standard, not when there’s so much to be gained from multiple approaches.
I should make it clear that I think journals will play a role in all of this. There’s a great deal to be said for having a narrative to explain a new discovery. But we should expect a gradual proliferation in formats and platforms, and (inevitably) for conventional journal articles to recede to be just one of many ways new science is communicated. If that doesn’t happen, then we’re failing to take proper advantage of this new medium. This is what I think successful scientific publishers will do in the future. They’ll be the ones who create the platforms and standards scientists use to communicate science, and, in many cases, to actually do science. But scientific journals don’t have a single future.