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Is this the end of the scholarly journal?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 24, 2007



Scientific advances sometimes come as lightning flashes of inspiration. But when scientists sit down to record and take credit for what they've found, they still use much the same method they have for decades – an article published in a scholarly journal.

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But science's hidebound traditions are changing. The Internet has opened up new forms of publishing in which anyone in the world can find and read a scientific paper. And papers themselves are becoming more interactive, leading readers to the underlying data, videos, and discussions that augment their value. With blogs and e-books providing easy means of self-publishing, some observers are speculating that scholarly journals and their controversial system of peer reviews may not be needed at all.

"The traditional journal publishing medium we've grown used to really needs to evolve and change because that's not the way people are accessing information," says Mark Gerstein, a professor of biomedical informatics at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Dr. Gerstein cowrote an article, "The Death of the Scientific Paper," which appeared last year on The-Scientist.com, an online science magazine.

If the hopes of innovators bear fruit, scientific advances will come ever more quickly as online publishing makes past research easier to access and share widely.

Two new scientific publications, both available only online, may signal what's ahead. The PLoS ONE ( plosone.org), a journal begun by the Public Library of Science (PLoS) last month, aims to put as many new scientific articles as possible on the Internet to be read by anyone, free of charge. The Journal of Visualized Experiments, or JoVE ( myjove.com), is a kind of YouTube for researchers. It operates on the theory that a short video showing how an experiment is done is better than thousands of words that attempt to describe it.

At PLoS ONE, which aspires to be a general science journal along the lines of Science and Nature, the papers themselves are only a starting point. Readers can annotate, comment on, and critique the findings: Their contributions become permanently attached to the original article. At least one commentator has likened this process to a kind of "electronic Talmud," in which the original document receives elaborate commentary and discussion that over time adds greatly to its value.

In coming months, says Chris Surridge, the managing editor of PLoS ONE, readers also will be able to rate papers on their quality, such as how surprising or groundbreaking the results were – much in the way Netflix subscribers rate movies they rent using one- to five-star ratings. In this sense, PLoS ONE is moving toward a Web 2.0 model, which focuses on user-generated content strategies already used by websites such as Digg.com, Slashdot.org, or Amazon.com.

For years, traditional "peer review" has come under fire. A jury of three experts, the peer reviewers, assess each article and recommend only those that they feel represent the most significant new work. At many elite scientific journals, fewer than 10 percent of the articles submitted are accepted. Many of the rejected articles eventually travel down the "food chain" to be published in a plethora of less prestigious (and less noticed) specialty journals.

A year ago, the respected US journal Science was forced to retract two papers it had published about stem cells. The articles had been submitted by a South Korean team led by Hwang Woo-Suk. Peer reviewers, as well as the editors, had failed to detect the fraud.

In general, peer reviewers, themselves researchers pressed for time, don't try to re-create experiments and rarely ask to see the raw data that supports a paper's conclusions. While peer review is expected to separate the wheat from the chaff, it's "slow, expensive, profligate of academic time, highly subjective, prone to bias, easily abused, poor at detecting gross defects, and almost useless for detecting fraud," summed up one critic in BMJ, the British medical journal, in 1997.

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