Online, instant access is changing the way we do things. Just the other day, I was in a store trying to make a decision about purchasing a bread machine. I pulled out my iPhone™, started up the web browser, and went online to check out manufacturer information and customer reviews of the various models on the store’s shelf. This online information ultimately determined my buying decision.
The “information age” is changing the way consumers are behaving. It is also changing the way the scientists and scientific publishers are behaving.
The June 24, 2009 e-mail update for Nature contained several pieces dealing with the sweeping changes that are affecting science reporting, both journalistic reporting and academic publishing in the sciences. One of their lead news stories concerned an announcement by the American Chemical Society (ACS) that it would convert all of its journals to an online-only format by 2010. The move to electronic publishing is gaining momentum in almost every arena. Journals, such as those published by the Public Library of Science, which have pushed the envelope on electronic delivery of peer-reviewed scientific information, are no longer seen as outliers. Other institutions are joining the move as well; Emory University in Atlanta, GA, publishes an online peer-reviewed publication, A Journal of Family Life. So, now different kinds of institutions, not just traditional publishing houses and societies, are contributing to scholarly publishing. Will this increased diversity drive a increase in quality, with those online publishers who make the time and money investment required to publish high-quality articles winning the competition for readers?
Challenges remain for online publishing as the academic and professional communities work to maintain reporting rigor and careful archiving while delivering valuable new types of data and encouraging the free exchange of ideas via the internet. In the past, print publications were slowly disseminated; now online publications are available to a larger audience immediately. How does that faster dissemination affect the back and forth, continual adjustment of hypotheses that happens in any scientific field? It’s exciting to think that a larger body of scientists and even the general public will be able to witness the process of science, as it happens—as science is published, reviewed and commented on in real time. However, will society be patient and let science do its work of continually challenging and tweaking and making conclusions based on a complete body of evidence? Or will the pendulum of public perception, legislative action and science education take giant swings back and forth, second by second, every time a new study in a field is published?