Making science accessible

We need to rethink how we organise scientific knowledge

June 05, 2019 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

The ability to self-correct is considered a hallmark of science. Journals publish material that advances a field in new ways. Studies that yield negative or non-confirmatory results of previous findings do not get priority, leading to insufficient replication of results. The peer-review process for ensuring quality can also be marred by the personal interests of the reviewers. The dissemination of scientific findings has retained this basic form even after moving online.

We need to rethink how we organise scientific knowledge and whether it should continue to be structured in journal form. Research has become almost inaccessible to ordinary citizens due to subscription fees. Academic publishing must embrace a more democratic, dynamic and collaborative process. While the different variants of the newer open access model aim to distribute published research online and free of cost to the reader, the fees for publication is often met by the author, the employer, or through a research grant. To increase profits, publishers sometimes compromise on quality and accept undeserving articles.

Under the OpenWetWare project of MIT, 20 labs in different institutions around the world use a wiki-based site to share data, materials and equipment. The ground-breaking work on the twin primes conjecture was done primarily in a comment thread via the Polymath Project.

The procedure of citations in a traditional journal paper accords them the same status irrespective of whether their results are presumed, strengthened or challenged. A new model would let us know with a click whether ideas are likely to become redundant or are truly load-bearing. Rapid, collaborative and iterative processes can improve veracity of scientific knowledge through large-scale participation.

Max Planck once observed that revolutions in science must sometimes wait for funerals. Though democratic initiatives such as Hackathons are gaining ground, our research institutions are still wedded to the antiquated journal system. Even the few digital institutional repositories that exist are centred on journal papers; other assets potentially generated in-house such as lessons learned from projects could also be included. At the institutional level, researchers continue to be recognised primarily for the number of papers they publish and the citations these papers can garner.

Individualism and secrecy get rewarded; there is no incentive for knowledge sharing. The need for wider collaboration between different constituencies of knowledge production and dissemination has policy implications at the macro level as well. Instead of chasing the mirage of high global rankings of a few isolated institutes of excellence, should a democratic society’s priorities not be to figure out ways to encourage knowledge creation and sharing across different levels of society?

The writer is an Information Scientist working in the Archives and Publications Cell of the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru

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