Regular readers of the Scholarly Kitchen may know that I tend to be critical of utopian visions for restructuring scientific communication. This is an information revolution and revolutions are always a sea of possibilities, most of which are not realistic. So to be fair, I here present a utopian vision of my own, to get my fair share of abuse, as it were.
It starts with the fact that science is organized around topics, which are basically aspects of nature that are amenable to productive study. The work, the funding, the education, and of course the journals, are all so organized. Thus science is loosely organized into communities of topical interest, bunches of people studying the same stuff in different ways.
The thing is that how they study this stuff, whatever it is, can vary a great deal within a given community. There are many methods. Most importantly, a method used on one community can be similar to the method people in distant communities are also using to study their stuff. Moreover, these methods are being improved all the time, in one community or another. This creates a need to know about methods across distant communities.
But the communication system is built around topics, not methods, so methods diffuse slowly. A methods improvement in one community is likely to diffuse first to neighboring communities, then on to their neighbors, and so on. It can take decades to get to distant communities. Given the new information technologies, perhaps we can greatly improve this situation, speeding up the diffusion of methods in the process.
It will, however, involve some significant changes, which is what makes it utopian. But “methods” is a pretty vague term, so let me provide some simple categories and examples before getting into the possible changes.
Mathematics is perhaps the most widespread category. My working definition of science is “the mathematical explanation of nature based on observation.” Most science journal articles include math, including computer modeling. But math and models improve, so how do these improvements get diffused to all the different, and distant, scientific communities that can use them?
For example, recently an advance in the Monte Carlo method was published in a forest management journal. How long before this reaches the nuclear medicine community, which makes heavy use of Monte Carlo? For that matter, Google Scholar lists 1.8 million articles using the term Monte Carlo, about 800,000 of which were published in the last 10 years. This is a huge distributed community, overlapping most if not all of the topical communities.
There are technological methods, such as the use of lasers, specific computer algorithms or neutron scattering. There are also new materials, new processes, new forms of data analysis, and so on.
The point is that communicating these research methods between communities is potentially just as important as communicating the latest research results within communities. Moreover, given today’s revolutionary new capabilities, one can now ask scientists to be aware of these methodological breakthroughs.
The publishing community has several possible roles to play here, which may admittedly be as utopian as described. First of all, editors and reviewers can require the same demonstration of methodological understanding as they demand of topical understanding. Topical understanding is demonstrated in the first part of a journal article. It is where most of the citations come in. The second part, where one explains one’s methods, typically includes no such demonstration of the state of the method, but it now could and probably should. Adding a methods reviewer might be all it takes.
Beyond this there may well be a market for methods journals. As the Monte Carlo example shows, a de facto methods community may be vast. But such communities are widely distributed among the topical communities, and there are few formal mechanisms for scientific communication of methods. In fact there is a Monte Carlo journal but it is not geared toward the general practitioner. Or perhaps what are called for are reprint journals that filter the topical journals for the best methods stuff. I am not proposing a design here, merely pointing out the potential market.
As it stands, the industry seems to be focused on improving a system that already works well, the system of topical information flows. Perhaps it should be looking at the system of method information flows, as that one is barely served.