Looks like Elsevier experiments on how to present scientific papers are starting to get coverage (on RWW no less).
The basic novelty here is real time search, but everything is peppered with other webby things like comments and AJAX.
The key features of the concept are here, and one can play with working prototypes. They are asking for feedback. I must say this is head and shoulders over reading a pdf on the screen. As highlights: (1) A figure that contains clickable areas so that it can be used as a navigation mechanism to directly access specific sub-sections of the results and figures, (2) references are clustered by sections of the paper they appeared in, and hot-linked.
However, it’s not clear if this kind of effort is just cosmetic or actually an important change. From the RWW article:
Some parts of the available prototypes are interesting but opinion in the scientific community seems split. Is this ground-breaking stuff or yesterday’s news repackaged by another industry threatened by the web? That depends on who you ask.
Let’s see. A publisher is, by definition, someone that helps your ideas reach more people and influence them (or was that a marketer? ). How good are current academic publishers achieving this? Not very well I would say, although it’s not the publisher’s fault only: most academics write in a way that repels readers. The fact is even that a blogger living in the long tail handles audiences orders of magnitudes larger than most academics get with their scholar papers. So one interesting question for academic publishers is how to get our stuff in front of the eyes of the general public, with their ever-decreasing attention span.
In this sense, I think this ‘new way of presenting an article makes it a lot easier to read. So, kudos to Elsevier.
On the other hand, if we want to compete for the attention of the general public, this is woefully inadequate. The Author Interview is a nice touch, but would people care enough to listen to it? Would this interview be helpful towards understanding the article without reading it in detail? Only server stats can answer these questions.
And there are many new ways of gather opinions and solve questions out there. Apart from wikis and forums, there is a new contender: stackOverflow. The basic idea is that the best solutions to a question get voted up. This saves one the effort to go through a thread of partial answers. It has taken the programming community by storm. Partly because it actually works better than previous solutions (do you remember question answering sites?) and partly because Joel Spolsky and Jeff Altwood backed it and pimped it to their huge audiences. Of course, it wasn’t long before someone (mendicantbug.com) proposed The Stack Overflow of Academia solution. This is by no means perfect:
The benefits of peer review by the herd are great, but not without pitfalls. First of all, you can be herd-reviewed by morons. Moron 1 might think everything Researcher A publishes is GOLD and gives the thumbs-up no matter how badly the research was done. Ditto on the flipside, with Moron 2 hating everything Researcher A does.
In any case, it’s clearly different to the ‘snail mail’ model of peer review that we still use. The post at stackOveflow is a declaration of principles.
As a commenter notes, the (bigger) problem that remains is that publishers want to be closed and charge for content:
This would be great if it was Google or some other company that doesn’t already charge exorbitant fees. Elsevier is well known to charge some of the highest prices—$300-400 for technical books! If electronic journals with multimedia etc are to take off, it will be because they democratize access to cutting edge science by removing the fees currently charged by academic journals, not b/c Elsevier hires some AJAX programmers. I can only imagine that this will be used as an excuse to charge more for access to Elsevier journals.
Very interesting times. I sense a huge opportunity here somewhere. Michael Nielsen also agrees that Scientific publishing is about to be disrupted. It just not clear to me whether facelifts like what Elsevier proposes are enough, or we need a more radical change.