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Science Publishing and the Web


By Kevin Davies

July | August 2006 | Earlier this year, Bio•IT World introduced a regular column in the magazine, “Science and the Web,” which explores the surging interest in topics such as the Semantic Web, Web 2.0, social networking, wikis, mashups, and so on. These are poised to radically change the ability of scientists to share data and develop ideas both within and between organizations.

In this regard, several interesting ventures were announced recently. Although they impact the scientific community, these initiatives come from the world of science publishing. The first took place in our own backyard, as Nature Publishing Group launched a community Web site called Nature Network Boston. One Nature executive likened the site to a “MySpace for scientists,” which isn’t necessarily a good thing, but one assumes a modicum of decency will prevail. In addition to local news and events, the site (network.nature.com/boston) allows local scientists to create their own personal profiles, post blogs, and most significantly, create and join a variety of groups with common interests.

In the first days of the site’s launch, groups have sprung up on the Semantic Web, bioinformatics, embryonic stem cells, and science commons, among others. If the Boston network proves successful, look for similar initiatives to be launched in major science centers including London, New York, and San Francisco.

A more radical publishing initiative centers on the thorny subject of peer review, which most scientists and editors believe to be an irreplaceable foundation of the research process. But that hasn’t stopped Nature and the Public Library of Science (PLoS), the nonprofit, open-access publisher, from experimenting with a bold new form of online peer review.

The PLoS experiment, which begins accepting papers in August, is called PLoS ONE, which it trumpets as “a pioneering system for the publication and creative use of scientific and medical knowledge.” PLoS ONE vows to return control over scholarly publishing to the research community, offering new tools for searching and adding value to the published literature.

“Scientists are eager to apply the awesome power of the Internet revolution to scientific communication, but have been stymied by the conservative nature of scientific publishing,” says PLoS co-founder Michael Eisen.

PLoS ONE aspires to become an open public venue for research data across multiple disciplines, using personalization tools to enable users to post comments on individual reports, “adding value to published material and creating powerful new ways for other readers to navigate and understand the literature.” PLoS hopes that such post-publication review and commentary will constitute an integral part of the review process.

PLoS says it won’t use the usual “general interest” criterion to judge whether papers should be published by PLoS ONE — that will be determined publicly by a much larger audience. Moreover, the research papers will now become part of a vibrant dialogue between authors, colleagues, and competitors, with interpretations and conclusions certain to evolve as data are confirmed and extended.

Such a platform already exists, however. Created last year, BioWizard (www.biowizard.com) offers a platform for open ranking and discussion of the full peer-reviewed literature. Founder Raju Raval says he became “increasingly frustrated with the lack of an open forum for discussion on published literature.” Recently launched worldwide, Raval says his goal is “advancing communication and collaboration in the life sciences.”

Meanwhile, Nature too is exploring an alternative to peer review, inspired by the Web. Editor-in-Chief Phil Campbell has the chutzpah to ask, “Is the journal even necessary, or could scientists manage the peer review process themselves?” In June, Nature launched a three-month trial in which authors can opt to have their manuscripts posted on a preprint server, in addition to the usual peer review process. Readers could then post comments, which journal editors could take into account in their dialogue with the authors.

The success of these initiatives remains to be seen, but clearly we have barely begun to imagine what the Web can do for the endeavor of science.

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