Thursday, September 25, 2008

Will web 2.0 "change the shape of scientific debate"?

The subtitle of this piece in The Economist set my spidey-sense tingling: "Web 2.0 tools are beginning to change the shape of scientific debate."

"Which web 2.0 tools are they talking about," I wondered, "and how are those tools changing scientific debate?" I also picked up notes of "it's all different now." (I'm a technologist by training and practice and a moderate technophile by inclination, but I'm also convinced that technology use reflects human nature at least as much as it changes it.)

Come to find out, they mean that people are -- in some cases -- bypassing journal publication as a means for publicizing results, and there is now a meta-blog, Research Blogging, aggregating research blogs. Cool stuff, and well worth a browse, but is it all that big a change?

As I said, I'm a technologist, not a scientist. The scientists I've known, I've known on a personal, non-professional basis. I won't claim to be an expert on the workings of the research community, but as far as I can tell there have always been several different levels of scientific information exchange, ranging from beer-soaked discussions at conferences through personal correspondence to publication in peer-reviewed journals.

My experience as a former member of the ACM is that there are also various flavors of publication: some are lightly reviewed and aimed at speedy publication of interesting ideas (e.g., SIGPLAN Notices) while some have heavyweight formal review processes and are aimed at publishing major developments in definitive form (e.g., Journal of the ACM). Now, one can argue whether computer science is a proper science, but as I understand it computer science research has much the same form as other areas of academic research.

From this point of view, a site like Blogging Research probably fits in between personal correspondence and publication in an unreviewed journal. More a filling in of a niche than a major shift in the landscape.

It also seems good to bear in mind two general trends: First, the overall volume and speed of communication has been steadily increasing for centuries, as has the number of people one can potentially communicate with easily. Second, the scientific community has been growing and becoming more specialized.

In Marin Mersenne's day, one could argue that the (Western) scientific community numbered in the dozens or hundreds, and Mersenne personally corresponded with a significant portion of them. Over time, communication has improved, the community has grown and the overall volume of scientific writing has increased dramatically. From this point of view, the adoption of email, newsgroups and now blogs is just part of a natural progression. For that matter, so is the development of the peer-reviewed journal.

The shape of scientific debate has more to do with the process of research and collaboration, I think, than with the particular means of communicating findings and theories. In that sense, I wouldn't expect the shape of debate to change much at all in the face of web 2.0 or web x.0 in general.

The article does point out an amusing example of the cobbler's children going barefoot, though:
[T]he internet was created for and by scientists, yet they have been slow to embrace its more useful features ... 35% of researchers surveyed say they use blogs. This figure may seem underwhelming, but it was almost nought just a few years ago.
(On the other hand, there were a lot fewer blogs of any kind a few years ago ... now how would one properly account for that statistically?)

[Not long after this was posted, ArXiv came along -- D.H. Dec 2018]

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