THE BLOG

A New Chapter in Science

21/04/2015 15:46 BST | Updated 21/06/2015 10:59 BST

This week to mark the 350th anniversary of Philosophical Transactions, the oldest scientific journal in the world, the Royal Society is hosting a two day session looking at The Future of Scholarly Scientific Communication.

As science itself has become more collaborative and global, more automated and digital and more data and software driven, so academic journals will increasingly take on the interlinked, semi-structured, database-like qualities of the Web itself. This transformation will be a huge undertaking for all those involved - publishers, editors, reviewers, authors and readers - and exactly what these new forms of publication will look like none of us yet knows. But the continued progress of science, and hence society, depends on it, so we must use all our ingenuity and energy to rise to the challenge. Transformational periods such as this come along only once every few generations. It is our good fortune and responsibility to be the authors of this new chapter in the history of the science.

In the five-and-a-half centuries since the introduction of moveable type in Europe, the world has become awash with printed matter. Today publishing is not just a huge but more importantly has had a vast and permanent impact on the material and intellectual development of humanity. From pamphlets and newspapers to textbooks and novels, the written word informs our politics, enables the transmission of ideas across generations and explores the human condition. Yet arguably, the most impactful publication type of all is the scientific journal, which celebrates its 350th anniversary this year, and which now faces an unprecedented combination of threats and opportunities.

Claiming journals to be more significant than newspapers and novels may seem perverse. They are generally arcane and impenetrable, and read by a mere slither of society - only about 0.1% of the human population is engaged in scientific research. But without journals, there would be no science, and without science, the modern world as we know it, with its life-saving medicines and labour-saving devices, would not exist. We would also understand next to nothing about the universe and our place in it. We humans are defined in large part by our science, and science itself arose largely thanks to the journal.

So credit to Henry Oldenburg and his colleagues at the Royal Society for publishing, in March 1665, the first issue of Philosophical Transactions, the world's first scientific journal, in order to describe "the present Undertakings, Studies, and Labours of the Ingenious in many considerable parts of the World". Underpinned by the philosophies of Bacon and Boyle, it gave contemporary natural philosophers the ability and incentive (by assigning priority and credit) to build a shared pool of human knowledge about the natural world. This approach set its practitioners apart from their knowledge-hoarding alchemist forebears, and modern science was born. As tentative and unpredictable as it must have seemed at the time, we can now see the impact of this innovation to have been nothing short of epochal.

Yet even as we celebrate its remarkable success, the future of the research journal is a subject of debate, and some even question the value of its continued existence. I certainly wouldn't go that far - the need to share written accounts of new experimental work and discoveries will continue for as long as science exists, even if the means to do so evolve in response to new media and technologies. But the science journal in another 350, or even 35, years will need to be a different beast to the one we know today, not least because technology is also redefining science itself.

For one thing, research is becoming more global and collaborative. Ostentatious international initiatives such as the Large Hadron Collider and the Human Brain Project are examples of this trend, driven in part by the ever bigger and deeper questions that scientists are trying to answer. But it applies to more humdrum, smaller-scale projects too. An analysis by Jonathan Adams (now a colleague of mine at Digital Science) shows that a generation ago over 80% of British research papers involved only British authors; now more than half are written by international research groups, and similar trends can be seen in other developed countries. This is a wholly welcome development that not only makes research more productive but in some ways also returns it to the founding ideals of modern science as the ultimate globally collaborative human endeavour, now finally made possible by means of 21st-century information technology.

Rapidly developing computing power is also responsible for making research more data-intensive, a trend that produces qualitative, not just quantitative, changes to the way that science is conducted. Modern approaches to genome sequencing and analysis, for example, would not just be slower if we didn't have such fast computers and capacious hard disks, they would be wholly impossible. This had led some commentators (including me) to characterise the current period of big-data-driven research as a new era to follow the previous observational, theoretical and computational eras of antiquity, the Enlightenment, and the late 20th century, respectively. Welcome to the world of eScience.

Tomorrow Belongs to Those Who Prepare for it

So journals, as containers of scientific knowledge and enablers of its dissemination, will have to change too, at least if they are to remain central to the tasks of doing and communicating research. For a start they, like science itself, will have to become more data-centric. In part this means making the underlying experimental results available alongside the authors' text and figures. But it also means enabling the 'publication' (whatever exactly that means in this context) of standalone data sets and computer code. And it means adding structure to the text of research papers so that they can be more effectively discovered, interpreted and assimilated by machines, not just expert humans.

Freed of the practical and economic constraints of print, journals will also need to encompass a far wider range of contribution sizes, just as the unit of publication in mainstream publishing has broken beyond the traditional bounds of a book and now ranges anywhere from a tweet to Wikipedia. With the advent of collaborative online databases, it is now perfectly feasible for a useful contribution to the scientific corpus to be comprised of literally one 'bit' of information. And, given the exponential arc of technological progress, within a decade or two the maximum size of a new scientific contribution may well exceed the sum total of all the scientific data that exist today.

Dr Timo Hannay is Managing Director of Digital Science in the UK