Incremental and continuous – a new paradigm for scientific publishing?

I had an interesting conversation with my mother a couple of nights ago about open science. Both of my parents are scientists (dad = chemist, mom = pharmacologist, both of them entrepreneurs as well), so I can just tell them what I’m doing and they always “get it”. My mother in particular has this knack for seeing past the shallow tangle of things I’m saying and “getting it” at a deeper level than even I do. A mother’s intuition, a scientist’s skill, whatever you want to call it – she’s good.

The conversation began with my telling her about the workshop and how the planning was going and what we were going to try to do. I started getting into Open Access, peer-review, credit systems, open notebook science, data sharing and portability, reproducible research, the culture of science and academia, big change, etc, etc, etc… all along she verbally nods, asks questions, comments, and then she says,

…so research should be published incrementally and continuously.

At that simple, yet astonishingly clear statement, I fell silent. Yes, I was familiar with discussions about open peer-review, about open notebooks, about blogging one’s research, about reproducibility, but I hadn’t really encapsulated it in my head the way my mother did. Of course, the term “published” is used very loosely here, and if it is indeed incremental and continuous then it resembles scientific publishing as it is now not at all. But maybe in the future we won’t have journal articles per se – removed in both time and process from the actual work – except as summaries at natural breakpoints. Maybe the bulk of what is read and used as the basis of future studies will be these incrementally “published” (i.e. certified in some way) and continuously updated records of ongoing research.

Many things would be different as a result (or precondition) of such a “publishing” paradigm, and I’m sure there are many potential pros and cons. I don’t necessarily think it should be the model for how things are done in the future, but my mom’s logical leap definitely made me ponder this whole open science thing in a new light.

9 Responses to Incremental and continuous – a new paradigm for scientific publishing?

  1. Deepak says:

    I would argue that many people do publish or try to as “incremental” and “continuous” but for the wrong reasons. They do it to get the most papers they can, so it could actually be artificial.

    That said, you are not using “published” in the traditional sense. Here’s a possibility, maybe each paper is treated like a wiki article. You publish version one and that one is the master and stamped for eternity. They, as you generate more information, you update that over time. If you do something monumental, you publish a formal paper with peer review and all that. Something along those lines

  2. shwu says:

    @Deepak: I agree, I used “publishing” very loosely. Now that I think about it, it might be similar to what’s happened to personal communication – where before it used to be formal or at least very discrete, in written letters that took days or weeks, now it is incremental and continuous in the form of email, cell phones, online discussion forums, twitter, etc. It’s still communication, but it hardly resembles what it did 100 years ago.

    The wiki idea does sound like a possibility. I would say that version 1 would really be version 0.5 – and it would lay out the goals and the plan and any preliminary data. Further versions would document your work as you collected more data, ran more experiments, did more analyses, along with preliminary conclusions. Perhaps monthly would be a palatable temporal unit. And -pure speculation- it could eventually lead to people following scientists and their research the way people follow a TV series or a sports team (a la Jennifer Rohn’s “Science as Sport”), hanging on with suspense – will the reaction work?? – will the cells show the phenotype?? stay tuned for next week’s episode. Not sure if that would be a good thing, but it’s interesting to think about.

  3. Pingback: Big picture, little picture « I was lost but now I live here

  4. jan. says:

    Agree completely with your mum as well. Trouble is it’s a chicken-and-egg problem.
    The credit system is missing. Funding agencies will not want to be responsible for setting such a system up, but if it would exist they would probably be more willing to support it (a bit similar to how some journals react when you send them a manuscript that argues for the journal to enforge a standard). But there’s of course no immediate value in creating one in the first place _until_ funding agencies rely on it.

  5. Continuous publication is certainly the objective of Open Notebook Science – without having to make a point of thinking about what to disclose or not disclose. The term “publication” in this sense is certainly consistent with how it is used in patent law – but not necessarily academia. I would call it published but not peer-reviewed.

  6. @Shirley & Jean-Claude: Continuous “publication” (in the sense of putting it under the eyes of the public) is a core element of what I imagine Open Science to be(come).

    Other such elements include, as pointed out above, a credit system that helps to assess the quality of contributions and to establish reputation.

    All this can be done in many wikis and similar environments in principle, but the best approximation I have seen is http://www.wikigenes.org/ – authorship is clearly visible for each and every word in there, every registered user can change anything they wish, and everybody except the contributor can rate each (text) contribution.

  7. In some sense the lower barrier to entry from the part of the publishers is already delivering this sort of incremental publishing. It is very common to see someone publish a method, a large scale application of the method and a detailed analysis of a particular example from this application in three different articles.
    One could also already “publish” work in progress also in pre-print servers and incrementally improve it before submitting to a peer-review journal. So I would argue that the tools and mindset is already there on the part of the publishers. What is missing is really changing the culture.

  8. Deepak says:

    Pedro … that’s probably more than half the battle. We definitely have the tools. We just need the support system and most importantly the will

  9. Pingback: What would science look like if it were invented today – part II: knowledge structuring | fundscience.org

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