In our previous commentary, we presented Haldane’s Sieve, a venue for discussing interesting papers published in arxiv.org preprint server. Simply Statistics blog wanted to take the idea of ‘publication’ one step further by removing even the arxiv.org from the picture and posting original research results directly in the blog. Many others must be toying with the idea of blog publication, because a blog commentary on the differences between blog post and paper received many comments. Based on other commentaries, sv-pow blog appears to be a visionary in their understanding of the new medium. We enjoyed their description of continuum in publishing, which matches our thinking.
Publication venues are a continuum
Its become apparent to us only gradually is that theres really no clear cut- off where a paper becomes properly published. Theres a continuum that runs from least to most formal and exclusive:
SV-POW! arXiv PLOS ONE JVP Nature
but why is such a continuum forming? We will skip everything already mentioned in two excellent posts from sv-pow blog linked above, and start where they ended. Especially, we will explain why these new modes of scientific communication are going to win over old ways, namely journals and conferences.
Scalability of the Internet
As a mode of communication, internet is infinitely scalable. Think about the cost of bringing 200 scientists together to meet for seven days at a technical conference. Those coming from halfway around the world are usually so jet- lagged that they are not in their best shape to attend early morning talks. Moreover, due to enormous cost of travel and other scheduling issues, the conference organizers try to pack as many presentations within the seven day as possible, even though no human being can stay sane after going through 1/10th as many presentations. Some speakers may have to go away after second day to attend other important function, whereas some others may miss the first day for the same reason. So, even after paying huge expenses, some conference attendees may not able to talk to each other in person, as they desired. Cost of transportation is the primary factor in planning for the conference, and that severely restricts the creativity of conference organizers. Conferences do not scale for globalized world of research, and will scale even less, when the debt crisis fully plays out and bankrupts nation after nation.
We gave the example of conference, but journals have similar scaling issues although at a lower level. Scaling problem for paper journals are very clear, but even the electronic journals are not fully scalable due to reasons discussed in the next topic. Internet is the only fully scalable method of communication in the globalized world of research, because it allows many ways for researchers, educationalists and students to talk to each others - forum (seqanswers), twitter, personal blogs, reprint blog (e.g. Haldane’s Sieve), slideshare, github, ftp upload of sequence, genomic database (e.g. Ensemble), facebook, Rosalind, etc. In fact, internet is so young, many other efficient methods of communication may not have been implemented yet.
Internet is Anarchic
Most commentators praising the internet talk about its low cost and high speed of internet communication, but do not acknowledge its anarchic nature even though that was the primary reason internet was started.
When we use the word ‘anarchy’, we take its original meaning as lack of hierarchy as it came from Russian zoologist and evolutionary theorist Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin ( ???? ??????????? ??????????). For a good discussion, please check the essays - in Praise of Anarchy part i, in praise of anarchy part ii and in praise of anarchy part iii.
In a nutshell, Kropotkin observed that the natural world does not have the hierarchies as seen in human society. For example, the lions in Zimbabwe do not follow orders from a grand poobah lion in Kenya or India. However, lack of centralized or hierarchical order does not make natural world break down. In fact, natural communities are sustainable, solely because their model of local order works at all scales. The hierarchical societies formed by humans are very expensive to scale and maintain, and the cost is usually borne by the ordinary people. The system benefits those at the top of the hierarchy, and so they like to form bigger and bigger hierarchies to protect their power. Anyone following progression of European debt crisis should have no doubt about this matter.
With that background, let us take a step back to check under what condition internet was created. Invention of nuclear bombs during world war II was the peak of centralization of power, because the central rulers achieved power to destroy the entire world by merely pressing one or two buttons. However, complete centralization could not be achieved, because two polarized sets of countries (USA block and USSR block) had the same power with the fear that the other one would annihilate them before they can do the same to the other. Internet started as a decentralizing technology to fight the fear of nuclear bomb, and its success is due to its ‘anarchic nature’. Internet scales so well, because it gives power back to people and allows them to form local non- hierarchical groups as seen in other domains of nature.
The journals being products of hierarchical society are inherently incompatible with the internet. That is the primary flaw we see in them to make them incompatible to fight against the internet. Going forward, internet will continue to invent many new methods of communication, whereas journals will have to keep going back to their hierarchies to change one or other rule to compete with the internet. They cannot win and at one point, they will be discarded.
Blogs will be the Medium of Exchange after the Collapse of Hierarchy
Hierarchical order is disappearing from parts of Europe experiencing severe debt crisis, and we do not see why USA will fare any better. Clearly the university system is unsustainable due to high costs, and has survived so long only because students received large amount of federal loans on easy terms over the last few years. We expect the current university system to shrink significantly increasing pressures on the journals. One main reason arxiv.org became successful among nuclear physicists was the end of cold war and drastic funding cuts. That situation will be real for all other researchers, and the innovative researchers will have no other way than to effectively use the internet to communicate.
Following essays are thought-provoking for those, who like to learn from others going through similar experiences. They discuss the developments for the entire societies, and not only the academia.