Thursday, April 12, 2018


James Somers argues that the scientific paper, developed as early as 1600, enabled our modern age but is now obsolete. He envisions the "paper" being replaced by something  more interactive ("The Scientific Paper Is Obsolete", The Atlantic, April 2018 ). However, interaction doesn't render the paper obsolete and is not new technology. In 1989 an interactive technology was developed specifically to enhance scientific communication, it came to be known as The World Wide Web. In "Information Management: A Proposal", Tim Berners-Lee wrote:
    "This proposal concerns the management of general information about accelerators and experiments at CERN. It discusses the problems of loss of information about complex evolving systems and derives a solution based on a distributed hypertext system."
Since then it seems the Web has been used for just about everything except scientific communication. But there have been some advances. There are social media-like forums for academia and in some fields data and working is published electronically, along with final results.

I expect we will continue to have scientific papers, but with hypertext links to the workings which lead to the paper and to where new work is being done. The resulting "papers" can be backward compatible, so if you print one out it looks like a "paper".

However, the purpose of a scientific paper needs to be kept in mind. Scientific papers are written by scientists for other scientists, they are not for the general public. Writing about science for the general public is, in itself, a specialist discipline and requires skills most scientists don't have and don't need.

However, we do need to train scientists, and other academics, in how to use the technology for communicating with their peers. I took part in a workshop recently on how to do the research to create a major new Australian export industry. There were to be several dozen researchers involved in multiple overlapping multidisciplinary projects spread across the country. The first issue was, inevitably, about funding. But the next question was which on-line tools were we to use for collaboration.

Software and engineering students now get trained to use tools to help with projects and which will, as a byproduct, produce documentation and reports. One of the first steps for a new student team is which tools to use. There is a lively discussion in tutorials between teams on the features of the different tools. But I doubt that many other STEM students do and few non-STEM.

No comments:

Post a Comment