What is the future of the scientific article? There have been many debates over the years since the Internet changed the game, but Elsevier wants to find out firsthand by creating a contest, which they are calling the “Article 2.0 Contest.”
The contest runs from September 1 to December 31, 2008, and the judges will render their verdicts (1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners) by January 31, 2009. Elsevier is making the content of more than 7,500 journal articles available via an API so that users will have material to mess around with. The prizes are US$4,000 for 1st place, US$2,000 for 2nd place, and US$1,000 for 3rd place.
On its surface, this sounds like an interesting and nice idea. But I see major flaws, starting with the rules. Not only are the rules too constraining and full of legal limitations on what can be done (Elsevier has lawyers, they scream), entrants are basically limited to 7,500 published articles in existing Elsevier journals. What’s wrong with that, you ask? It means that all the content in Article 2.0 will be based on shovelware from Article 1.0. And just how exciting is that going to be?
As an experiment, this seems underpowered in major ways. It almost seems cynical, akin to Nature’s peer-review experiment. Too little time is being given for a true experiment, and there are deep, intrinsic problems not in the hypothesis but in the execution. It’s a crippled experiment. It’s tempting to think Elsevier is just looking for free ideas to dress up its current online publishing approaches. The contest is described as, “What if you were the publisher?” not as “What if you were the author?” I think Elsevier is looking for baubles and tricks, not a fundamentally new approach to publishing and authorship.
Now, I may be surprised once the results come out. The judges are very well-selected — that’s the most reassuring part of this. Elsevier as an organization has been doing many impressive things lately, experimenting much more openly. Maybe people with the infrastructure and skills to use and API and REST and XML will, in three months, be able to do amazing things with articles originally developed and published in print. But I’m skeptical. There are simply too many limitations burdening the adventure.
Article 2.0 as a true experiment would mean that the authoring experience and tools would change, the fundamental data would deepen and become networked, and the presentation would be re-imagined based on the possibilities of Web 2.0. This would fundamentally change the genesis of a research report. The thing that should scare Elsevier and every other traditional publisher is that they are not the ones doing those experiments. These experiments are being created elsewhere.
To cut to the chase, I think this is akin to putting lipstick (Web 2.0) on a pig (the traditional print article). And that’s not very interesting at all.