Charles Basenga Kiyanda

What’s this internet thing, now? (The science version)

I’ve been reading the new music strategies blog by Andrew Dubber and have been enjoying my read lately. The blog is about the world of online music and the interaction of musical artists, the internet and the fans, to a certain point. I’ve been finding a lot of parallels between Dubber’s world of online music and what I’m trying to express here about scientific communication.

Dubber has gone through the exercise of describing what his conception of online music is. To achieve that goal, he broke it down into pieces. A first post looks at what ‘music’ means. A second post looks at what ‘online’ is and a final post looks at what it means to talk about ‘online music’.

What I found most interesting was about the third post, describing what online music is. The analogy Dubber uses over and over again is to think about the internet as one would think about electricity. It’s a service which allows you to plug-in all the appliances you need and use. It’s standard, so you can build your own appliances to suit your specific needs. Starting from there, it’s easy to understand that the internet is more than “internet explorer, msn and facebook”. (I guess this would have been myspace a year ago, but hey, times change.) The internet is the backbone of the new media applications we use and several unknown applications are just waiting to be created. One of Dubber’s suggestions to artists looking to make use of “the internet” or “new media” is to stop asking “What are the available solutions and how can I use them?” but rather to ask “What are my needs and can I meet them by building a solution that uses the internet as a communication medium?” It makes for a slightly longer question, but a oh so richer set of possibilities.

I think we need to start an analogous process for how we disseminate science. The answer we’ve given to the equation “science papers + the internet = ?” has for too long been, well, “science papers on the internet.”

In computer terms, we’ve updated part of the front end, how we read and get the papers, but we haven’t changed the back end, how we write and publish scientific papers. I think it’s time to start rethinking the vessel, to start to question the packaging, not of scientific papers, but of scientific information.

I’m not saying the project I’m working on will be a revolution from the start, but I do think it should allows us to replicate online something that’s close to what we do now (write, submit, review, rebut, publish) while opening up the possibilities to those who want to explore them. Ideally, different “publication models” will be able to co-exist so that we can simply see what the differences are, what the implications of the new models are and decide.

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