Facebook — for scientists

Researchers look to the Internet to bring their work to the world.

Graison Hensley Chapman

Between the steep costs of journal subscriptions, the obscurity of the ivory tower and the mass of bad research that gets published, scientists have reason to lament the lack of openness in their field.
To get back the essence and force of great ideas that sometimes get drowned out, scientists at the University of Minnesota and elsewhere are looking to the Internet to let some sunlight in on the process.
âÄúThese boundaries that separate academia from others are detrimental to any kind of thought process, any kind of progress,âÄù said Dr. Jakub Tolar, a University professor specializing in pediatric bone marrow transplantation.
Tolar is also a reviewer for the Faculty of 1000, a website that allows scientists to share ratings of peer papers, allowing the highest-rated papers to get the attention of other researchers who might make use of that knowledge.
Since its founding in 2002, F1000 has grown to include 10 times the faculty its title claims. Tolar said up to 15 percent of his fieldâÄôs papers are either reviewed on the site or make use of another revolution to get around the cost: open-access publishing, which allows unlimited and copyright-free distribution of articles without subscription.
The Internet has undoubtedly helped the trends along, but Dr. James Sidman, a pediatric head and neck surgeon at ChildrenâÄôs Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota and a University professor, said the drivers of the shift are more elemental.
One of those fundamentals is the cost of academic journals, he said. An individual subscription to a scientific journal can cost several hundred dollars a year, making it prohibitive to those outside academia.
âÄúMost people donâÄôt have that kind of access,âÄù he said.
While most journals have retained a subscription model, the start of new journals and the opening of existing ones have solidified the momentum in this new direction. For example, the Public Library of Science, founded in 2000, offers all of its content at no cost and with no restrictions. When it launched its website in 1996, the New England Journal of Medicine included free access to articles older than six months, as well as free access for all articles in poor countries.
Another boost came in 2009 with a $12.2 million National Institutes of Health grant to develop a professional networking site for scientists.
According to a January report by the Chronicle of Higher Education, from 2005 to 2010 the number of open-access articles in biology and medicine grew from 10,662 to 56,654.
The money not gained by subscriptions has to be made up elsewhere, though, and that has Sidman worried.
âÄúThe hidden part of that world,âÄù he said, is that some open-access journals require the scientist to pay for publication. At $300 to $1,500 per article, he estimated the cost of publishing his research could reach up to $10,000 a year.
âÄúFor me, itâÄôs a deal breaker,âÄù Sidman said. âÄúIâÄôm not going to pay to publish my work.âÄù
Apart from the financial hit, Sidman said a combination of pay-to-publish and the prevailing âÄúpublish or perishâÄù system of promotion in academia could create ethical conflicts.
But he speculated that the reputation-based marketplace of science might self-correct against such conflicts of interest, explaining that pay-to-publish journals might eventually be assigned lower âÄúimpact factors,âÄù the score for how often a publication is referenced by others.
Tolar said the current system of journal subscription and the traditional review process are not immune from unethical practices. He argued more openness will decrease reviews motivated by favoritism or friendship.
With F1000âÄôs open review, âÄúthe bad players would be somewhat quickly identified,âÄù he said, âÄúnot by any formal process, but disqualified from having [an] opinion.âÄù
While there doesnâÄôt seem to be organized opposition to open-access journals âÄî and even less toward sites in the F1000 vein âÄî there are obstacles to its adoption.
One of those, says freelance science writer Apoorva Mandavilli, is counterintuitive: a lack of participation by young scientists.
In a competitive environment, said Mandavilli, âÄúthe younger scientists have a lot more to lose.
âÄúTheyâÄôre often not established in their careers,âÄù she said. âÄúThey donâÄôt want to get scooped âÄî they want the credit.âÄù
Mandavilli said action by academia to formalize the benefits of participation in such sites would be a âÄúhuge changeâÄù for wary, young scientists. But until then, she said, for many âÄúthereâÄôs absolutely no benefit and a lot of potential harm.âÄù
Another hurdle for F1000 and open access is what Tolar calls âÄúthe inertia of academia,âÄù meaning the tendency of the academy to resist change.
Despite that, he remains hopeful that the scientific community will keep moving toward the new model, which has been in part characterized by a number of interruptions to that inertia.