RWW on Elsevier’s Prototype: Is This The Scientific Article of the Future?

July 26th, 2009 by jose

Looks like Elsevier experiments on how to present scientific papers are starting to get coverage  (on RWW no less)Elsevier1.

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 ( 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.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you !

9 Responses to “RWW on Elsevier’s Prototype: Is This The Scientific Article of the Future?”

  1. MichaelNo Gravatar Says:

    Thanks for this post and the sites you linked to.

    Having dynamic papers will be very important in the future, but right now it may not be the thing to focus on. The example of the audio interview seems pointless. But in the future an embed 3d model that is capable of being manipulated would be exciting.

    Right now, I just would like scientific papers to be more easily accessible. As an undergrad just starting on research, I find myself spending more time searching and getting around the databases than I do actually reading material.

  2. John HunterNo Gravatar Says:

    Dynamic papers are a step but more is needed. Stack overflow is an excellent example of applying good ideas well. The difference between excellent sites like stack overflow and others is not just the big ideas it is excellent execution of many many small details.

  3. Jeremy Says:

    I am quite leery of new formats by content companies. It seems they are usually ways of locking content down so that you cannot access it/save it/alter it without the company’s permission. PDFs are boring but they are a relatively open format that can be downloaded and stored on the computer and even emailed to colleagues. I wonder if a part of the new format will involve keeping the content exclusively on Elsevier’s webpage so that you or your University must have a paid subscription for continued access.

    I continue to wonder what the purpose of journals is. Much of the function of the journal could be replicated in an online-only format run by researchers with the help of a few web techs and format editors. It seems like journals just make money by forcing you to hand over the copyright for work that was probably publicly funded and then locking down that work in order to sell it back to you and the rest of the public. The whole system seems rather parasitic as the journals don’t create the content they just benefit from the public funding and creative work of researchers. I hope we will find a better system soon that will open content to the public that payed for the work to be done in the first place.

  4. Juli overzicht « Dee’tjes Says:

    [...] RWW on Elsevier’s Prototype: Is This The Scientific Article of the Future? (Academic productivity)… [...]

  5. mature cougarsNo Gravatar Says:

    “On the other hand, if we want to compete for the attention of the general public, this is woefully inadequate.”

    It is good to know that Elsevier recognizes that there is a need for improvement in academic publishing. Perhaps with articles like this, Elsevier will be guided to the more effective strategies.

  6. M Says:

    I find the tabbed interface annoying. I don’t like having to click the tabs and it makes it difficult to find a particular phrase, word or quote since you have to run a text search several times on each of the different tabs. Also, I find the traditional long page is easier for a quick read/scan. They could have made a single page with links to various sections on the side or something similar.

  7. free college admission essaysNo Gravatar Says:

    “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”

    This is a very useful feature, especially when reading and accessing lengthy scientific papers with various sub-sections on the web.

  8. Academic Productivity » Review of Google Wave as a scholarly HTML editor Says:

    [...] one, but that adds little value. We are equaled in terms of tools. However, publishers such as Elsevier want to get away from the paper metaphor (which is a good thing). As a consequence, authors will not be able to produce HTML as rich as the publisher’s. Here, the [...]

  9. Academic Productivity » The Future of the Journal, by Anita de Waard Says:

    [...] publishing industry has at least one person (Anita) that gets it makes me feel good. Looks like Elsevier has a head-start. If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS [...]

Leave a Reply