George Whitesides: The Concept of the Scientific Paper is Eroding Before Our Very Eyes

January 28, 2012

George Whitesides is well known as an innovator and one of chemistry's most visible representatives. He has the distinction of being credited with the highest Hirsch index for any living chemist. You could say he knows something about scientific publication.

The above video excerpt was taken from an extended interview with Whitesides on the topic of publication. Although the full interview series is worth watching, most striking are Whitesides' views on the changes happening in scientific publication and what the future is likely to hold:

One of the troubles with universities is there's a tendency to do terrific research, embed it in prose that is impenetrable even to experts, bury it in papers, and have to everyone's surprise nothing come out of it. ... It may well be that what we have in the future is some combination of very short snips in one or another kind of extended abstract leading to, through links - through something else, more and more levels of detail.

The scientific paper evolved under an environment in which scarcity ruled. This scarcity enforced a uniform format on scientific discourse. Due to physical constraints on printing and distribution, only certain kinds of research could be published. A great deal of valuable information and effort have been wasted in the process.

The Web and desktop publishing have abolished these constraints, but most scientist continue to act as if nothing has changed. They continue to huddle around the dying embers imprimatur left over from a handful of pre-digital journals. Or they try and try again to push these journals into distribution models (Open Access) that are simply incompatible with the top-heavy organizations that have grown around outdated publication models.

Those scientist and nimble information service providers who understand that the old rules no longer apply will enjoy significant advantages that will amaze (and possibly leave behind) the ones who can't (or won't) adapt.