Tearing Down Skyscrapers for Interstate Highways

In reading the second half of Too Big to Know, one very important message shone bright – that the nature of science is changing, and so, our outlets for science must change with it. I believe that, with the formation of the scientific internet, that major scientific print publications must switch to the web or be left behind.

I believe such a dramatic shift must occur for three main reasons – firstly, that such a change would quicken the publication process, and thus the scientific process, significantly; secondly, that such a medium would allow for a bi-directional flow of information, thus improving the speed of discussion, iteration, and scientific advancement; and finally, that such a change would allow researchers and scientists to harness the massive untapped potential of amateur scholars.

Currently, research and publication is severely hindered by the speed of print. Whereas an article could be published instantly on the internet, a print publication can take multitudes longer. Victor Henning, creator of Mendeley, an online publication sharing platform, aptly states the problem in saying “if I’m writing a paper today it takes a year to get it peer reviewed and another year to get it published”. The fact that it takes two years in order for modern information to get to its consumers makes the entire process prohibitively expensive in terms of progress. Conversely, Mendeley, as previously mentioned, allows for immediate publication and discussion – a huge perk to the scientific community, as shown by its “450,000 registered users and 33 million articles” a mere twenty months after its conception.

However, as if the fact that this information gets to the populace immediately weren’t enough, an online publishing platform would also allow for immediate fact-checking, criticism, and further progress. This is fantastic, because it allows for immediate feedback and development, as opposed to the long and arduous process of print publication. As witnessed in Deolalikar’s proof of P = NP, “within two days, Delolalikar’s paper suffered the fate of prior attempts … both armchair and professional math pundits proceeded to tear it apart in comments sections and subsequent blgo posts, finding major flaws.” Had Delolalikar’s paper been published via print, not only would it have taken years to enter the public sphere, but upon entry, it would have taken years further in order for a formal response to be published. Rather, we skip these four plus years of peer review and bureaucracy, and instead directly enter the meat of the matter.

But wait, there’s more! This process also allows for immediate and organic collaboration with hundreds, if not thousands, of interested scholars. While they may be amateurs, the probing minds of this horde strictly outperform the handful of brilliant minds belonging to peers and colleagues. While these amateurs may not be breaking any new ground or establishing any new theories, this teeming mass is more than happy to fact-check every last detail. Albeit with a slightly disappointed connotation, Weinberg puts it succintly: “These amateurs are not tearing down the wall of credentials within which the scientific community lives. They are extending the apparatus of science.” It would be foolish to let such a powerful resource go to waste.

I made a city metaphor in previous blog posts, describing the science of old as a city built tall and narrow, and the internet as one built flat and wide. To return to that metaphor, this shift would be the equivalent of taking a tower-top restaurant with elevators slow to rise, and swapping it out with a huge drive-through on an even bigger highway. Sure, it’s a little less fancy, but the tradeoff in throughput makes it more than worth it.

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