Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Future of Science

Editor’s note: This guest post was written by Richard Price, founder and CEO of — a site that serves as a platform for academics to share their research papers and to interact with each other.

Almost every technological and medical innovation in the world has its roots in a scientific paper. Science drives much of the world’s innovation. The faster science moves, the faster the world moves.

Progress in science right now is being held back by two key inefficiencies:

  • The time-lag problem: there is a time-lag of, on average, 12 months between finishing a paper, and it being published.
  • The single mode of publication problem: scientists share their ideas only via one format, the scientific paper, and don’t take advantage of the full range of media that the web makes possible.


The time-lag problem

The first major inefficiency is the time-lag problem for distributing scientific ideas. [snip].


Science is fundamentally a conversation between scientists around the world. Currently the intervals between iterations of that conversation are 12 months on average. [snip].


The time-lag in the distribution of scientific ideas is significantly holding back science. It’s critical for global progress that we work to remove this inefficiency.

The single mode of publication problem

Historically, if a scientist wants to make a contribution to the scientific body of knowledge, it has to be in the form of a scientific paper.


Most people who share information on the web have taken advantage of the rich media that the web provides. People share information in all kinds of forms: videos, status updates, blog posts, blog comments, data sets, interactive graphs, and other forms.

By contrast, if a scientist wants to share some information on a protein that they are working on, they have to write a paper with a set of two dimensional black and white images of that protein. The norms don’t encourage the sharing of an interactive, full-color, 3 dimensional model of the protein, even if that would be a more suitable media format for the kind of knowledge that is being shared.

The future of science: instant distribution

Tim Berners-Lee invented the web in order to make it easier for him and his colleagues to share their research papers. The web has impacted science, but over the next few years, the web is going to entirely re-invent the way that scientists interact.

In 5-10 years’ time, the way scientists will communicate will be unrecognizable from the way that they have been communicating for the last 400 years, when the first academic journal was founded.

The first change will be instant distribution for all scientific ideas. Some sites, such as arXiv,, Mendeley, and ResearchGate have brought instant distribution to certain sub-fields of science recently, and this trend is going to continue to all fields of science.


Instant distribution means bringing the time-lag for distributing a scientific paper around the world down to 1 day, or less. This speed-up will have a transformative effect on the rate of scientific progress in the world. Discoveries will be made much more quickly.


Bringing instant distribution to science will have a similarly transformative effect on scientific progress.

The future of science: rich media

Historically scientists have written their papers as native desktop content. They have saved their papers as PDFs, and uploaded the files to the web.

Over the next few years, scientific content will increasingly become native web content, and be written natively for the web. Scientific content will be created with the full interactivity, and richness, of the web in mind. [snip].

Most web content is inherently rich. No-one prints out their Twitter and Facebook News Feeds to read them, or blog posts. The idea of printing out content doesn’t make sense for much of the web’s content, such as YouTube videos, Facebook photos, interactive maps, and interactive graphs such as those on you find on Quantcast, or Yahoo Finance.


Historically, scientific papers have cited other papers, but those citations are not hyper-linked.


Scientists will share content in whatever format makes sense for the piece of content in question. They will share ideas in the form of data sets, videos, 3-d models, software programs, graphs, blog posts, status updates, and comments on all these rich media.

The ways that these content formats will connect with each other will be via the hyperlink, and not via the citation. The citation will look like an ancient concept in a few years.

Science is undergoing one of the most exciting changes in its history. It is in a transition period between a pre-web form of communication to a natively web form of communication. The full adoption of the web by scientists will transform science. Scientists will start to interact and communicate in wonderful new ways that will have an enormous effect on scientific progress.

The future of science: peer review

In a world of instant distribution, what happens to peer review? Will this be a world where junk gets published, and no-one will be able to tell whether a particular piece of content is good or bad

I wrote a post on TechCrunch a few weeks ago called “The Future of Peer Review”, arguing that the web has an instant distribution model, and has thrived. I argued that the web’s main discovery engines for content on the web, namely search engines, and social networks, are at their heart, evolved peer review systems.


The future of science: academic credit

Historically scientists have gained credit by publishing in prestigious journals. [snip].

As scientific content moves to become native web content, scientific content will increasingly be evaluated according to the kinds of metrics that reflect the success of a piece of content on the web.

Web metrics vary, and evolve. Some are internet-wide metrics, such as unique visitors, page views, time on site. Others are specific to certain verticals, or sites, such as Twitter follower counts, StackOverflow score, Facebook likes, and YouTube video views.

As these metrics are increasingly understood in the context of scientific content, scientists will increasingly share content that attracts this kind of credit.


Directing Silicon Valley’s resources towards accelerating science

Science is in the process of being re-built and transformed. It is going to be an exhilarating process. The positive impact to society will be significant.

The next wave of science is not being built by scientific publishers. It is being built by engineering-

Silicon Valley’s formidable resources are starting to turn in the direction of science, ... .


As the extraordinary Silicon Valley innovation engine increasingly directs itself at transforming science, you can expect to see acceleration on a scale that science has never seen. Science will change beyond recognition, and the positive impact on the rate of technology growth in the world will be enormous.


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