Cracking Open Science

By Thomas Lin
Science Times, January 17, 2012

Edited by Andy Ross

For centuries, scientific research was done in private, then submitted to science and medical journals to be reviewed by peers and published for the benefit of other researchers and the public at large. But the system is hidebound, expensive and elitist. Peer review can take months, journal subscriptions can be prohibitively costly, and a handful of gatekeepers limit the flow of information.

Open-access archives and journals like arXiv and the Public Library of Science (PLoS) have sprung up in recent years. On the collaborative blog MathOverflow, mathematicians earn reputation points for contributing to solutions. And a social networking site called ResearchGate is growing fast.

Started in 2008 and based in Berlin, ResearchGate was shaped with feedback from scientists. Its membership is now more than 1.3 million and it has attracted millions of dollars in venture capital. A year ago, ResearchGate had 12 employees. Now it has 70 and is hiring. It features a self-archiving repository that houses now 350,000 papers and offers search over 40 million abstracts and papers from other science databases.

The established journals say they provide a critical service that does not come cheap. Science executive publisher Alan Leshner: "I would love for it to be free but we have to cover the costs." Similarly, Nature employs a large editorial staff to manage the peer-review process and to select and polish papers for publication.

The journal publisher Elsevier has drawn criticism for supporting the Research Works Act, introduced in Congress last month, which seeks to protect publishers' rights by restricting access to research papers and data. Elsevier director of universal access Alicia Wise says "professional curation and preservation of data is, like professional publishing, neither easy nor inexpensive."

MIT quantum computing theorist Scott Aaronson refuses to conduct peer review for or submit papers to commercial journals: "I got tired of giving free labor to these very rich for-profit companies." He is now an active member of online science communities like MathOverflow.

Former Facebook VP of product management Matt Cohler now represents Benchmark Capital on the ResearchGate board. He sees a vast untapped market in online science.

AR  Time to update science publishing. The established journal publishers need to listen to their golden geese.