A response to a response

silver by Javier Volcán
A Response to -The Future of Science-:
[Via Bench Marks]

Michael Nielsen has written a thoughtful essay over on his blog asking why scientists have been so slow to pick up on new web 2.0 technologies (found via Bora’s blog). It’s good to see that many of his conclusions echo my own (here too), that the big problems are a lack of time and incentive. He offers some potential solutions, and reasons why people should be using these new tools. A few responses, as always attempting to cut through the evangelism, cross-posted over in his comments thread:

I love it when David has a lot of links and comments. Always a great conversation.

On Wikipedia–Neilsen comments that the reason more scientists aren’t writing Wikipedia articles is, “that contributing to Wikipedia isn’t really science.” In some ways he’s right–being part of an anonymously authored group-posting isn’t something you’re likely to get career credit for. But there are other reasons as well, as anyone who has tried to contribute to Wikipedia can tell you, number one being the near impenetrable web of rules surrounding participation, and the overly zealous guardians of those rules. From my own experience, when trying to add a few facts or correct a few errors in a Wiki entry, every single attempt I made was immediately deleted, citing some obscure and inscrutable rule. Rather than try to challenge the gatekeepers, I simply gave up on trying to help out. As pointed out elsewhere, experts are not welcome on Wikipedia (noted here too), and scientists are likely to be experts in the field in which they’re writing. So, not only is there no incentive, they’re also likely to run into hostile opposition to their participation.

So, how does anyone on Wikipedia know you are an expert? I mean, everyone can edit, so, how do the Wikipedia police know I am an expert so they can be anti-me? In my experience, it is because someone says “I’m an expert. I’m right.” It usually devolves down to this. It is an appeal to authority and is a logical fallacy. WRITING that you are an expert has no validity on Wikipedia. Why even bring it up?

More and more, entries on wikipedia only have real standing if they link to facts at other sites. Simply stating a fact without outside documentation will not usually fly. This actually plays towards the expert because they can find these facts faster to bolster their argument.

As an aside, I wanted to mention the irony of the links David uses. Now, if we are discussing Wikipedia errors and believing material found on the Web, then why should we simply believe what these articles say? It turns out that some of the facts given, particularly in the second link, may not be correct. How did I find out? I went to the Wikipedia article it mentions and read the discussion.

It actually brings up the questions about the obituary that Jason scott raised. Several people then investigate this and find the original link that was used in the original article. They note that there was a transcription error but also note that the age of death is actually correct.

So, errors infiltrate any encyclopedia. But Wikipedia is able to have open discussion and to use outside facts to correct them.

But the original point is still true. no scientists is going to write a Wikipedia article to enhance their reputation. It is not the purpose of the site. But, if I was doing some really important, high power research, I might want to make sure the Wikipedia article on my subject existed and that ant facts it contained were bolstered with real links to the relevant facts.

Because you can bet anyone who wants to check me out and my field of study will also check that article.

On the OA movement–yes, they’ve certainly made great strides and are having a strong influence on the culture of science. That said, as recent reports point out, the economics of the OA movement have so far failed to show that they can be sustainable across a wide variety of publications. We may just be in early times of a long term movement, but I’d be hesitant to throw out the system we currently have for an unproven one.

It took 30-40 years before scientific publishing as we know it to develop a strong enough business model to be profitable. I expect OA will take some time also. Also, I do not think it is an either-or sort of thing. There will always be a need for heavily vetted, highly impactful general sorts of journals, like Science or Nature. But their business model relies on a mixture of ads and subscriptions that few other journals can match.

Other models will work also but there are a huge number of scientific journals that simply serve as places for researchers to publish. There is a reason they do not have the impact of other journals. I expect that these will be very susceptible to OA. Frankly, OS has shaken up a mostly moribund industry in very positive ways. It has resulted in Nature Publishing and others to really examine novel routes to disseminate their publications. Even Elsevier is having to adapt.

So much more from David. I’ll get to them later.

4 thoughts on “A response to a response

  1. Interesting thoughts–I think the real problem I have with Wikipedia (and many Web 2.0 for science projects) is that they, in the end, select for consensus rather than accuracy. As the first article I linked points out, those who have lots of spare time and are the most stubborn are most likely to win any argument about content on Wikipedia, rather than the person who is most correct. It selects against people who don’t have lots of spare time, and selects for bull-headedness. As Max Perutz famously said, “In science, truth always wins,” but on Wikipedia, he who argues the longest and the loudest always wins.

    As for the journal business models, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. We’re entering an era where there will be multiple successful business models. Biomedcentral and Plos One are carving out areas where author-pays open-access are highly successful. But those methods don’t necessarily translate to other types of publishing. A good article on the economics is here, and the author points out that the problem with many OA journals is that they’re just trying to replicate non-OA journals, rather than taking advantage of what their business model does best:

  2. Thanks for the link. OA models are changing, as PLoS has shown. And traditional business models are having to adapt. I think in the long run, OA will work out to be very helpful for all of scientific publishing, as well as for science.

    As for the longest-loudest argument – it may just be part of the particular medium used. Web 2.0 tools will not necessarily replace other approaches but can augment them. There may be lots of back and forth on Wikipedia and the ‘right’ guy may give way to a bully.

    But, I have seen the exact same thing happen at scientific meetings, both formal and informal. Bullying, “I’m the expert” types of Q & A, etc. are not inheard of. The problem is that there is rally very little that can be done to correct this.

    At least with Wikipedia, all these arguments are extrinsic and can be seen by all. It is then up to the community to decide if it wants to condone the bullying or not. And if bullying becomes the way of life, if the community could not expell the bllies, I would expect most people to leave and find some other place to start a wiki.

    I may disagree with much of what is placed on Conservapedia but it was not difficult for those who disagree with a community’s viewpoint to form their own.

    Change may not happen immediately but at least it has a chance to occur and for behavior to be altered.

    Also, Wikipedia will never be a definitive source for most things. There will be other areas for that (perhaps knol). But wikipedia is a passable first start for most things, which is why it is useful.

    Wikipedia is a place where consensus is usually a plus. But if I wanted accuracy, I would look to Science, Nature and even Cold Spring Harbor Protocols ;-)

    There are roles for both.

  3. Yes, start with Wikipedia and then go to the source—your Mother!:-) Then you can decide if you are arguing for or against, depending on her oponion. At least, your thoughts are then clarified.

  4. Hi Richard,
    I came across your blog from reading Michael Nielson’s essay that you have referenced in your post. I thought I’d share with you, some new research that my agency (PJA) produced with BioInformatics LLC on how scientists are responding to the open access publishing model. You can download the full report at http://www.lifesciencesocialmedia.com. Please feel free to explore our site and leave us a comment if you’d like.



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