Building on strong citations

Added by Ashtonphil on 28 June 2010 11:27

Anyone reading this blog is likely to agree that we are at the beginning of potentially the most exciting, creative and fruitful period in the history of science.

In biology we can now sequence whole genomes in less time than it took to sequence a single gene a few years ago, big physics is booming at CERN and the Diamond Light Source and information and communication technologies are more advanced and ubiquitous than was imaginable just a decade or two ago.

However, one major worry that hasn’t been adequately addressed is the fact that the scientific infrastructure is not adapting to make the most of new developments in how peer to peer communication takes place.

Previously if you wanted to know the personal views of a world renowned scientist or multi-million dollar funding body you had to have friends in high places. Now all you have to do is read their blog/follow them on twitter/google or youtube them. How has this sea change in communication been reflected in the academic literature? Like a carbon nanotube array.

If you cited a blog in a paper your reviewer would dismiss it outright and their opinion of the rest of your work would likely suffer. I would argue that a system of ‘informal citation’ would be a good first step in bringing this nascent resource into the mainstream. For a blog to be cited the blogger would have to have filled in certain information such as name, position, research interests and publication history.

Before this is becomes widespread there are some practicalities to overcome (please mention any you can think of in the comments below) but these are far from insurmountable. This type of citation would not have the weight of a peer reviewed paper but would be an improvement on ‘personal communication’ allowed under the current consensus as anyone interested could access it.

This would be the beginning of a new way of seeing the scientific literature, as a spectrum rather than a gospel. This new spectrum would have to evolve to other changes on the horizon such as people citing other people’s data sets. Since whole genomes are now sequenced and then only analysed from one point of view (e.g. bacterial genomes for a typing scheme) shouldn’t we open up that data to other people to analyse in different ways (e.g. presence of chitinases in bacterial genomes). This brings another set of challenges such as accreditation and quality control but when the potential benefits are considered it’s surprising that funding bodies don’t insist on it already. This kind of top down change has already been successful in the Open Access movement adopted by the NIH.

As scientists we need to be pragmatic about utilising changes in technology to our advantage. We also need to remember that the one thing science should never do is adopt the attitude of ‘it should be this way because it has always been this way’. This sort of conservatism is the antithesis of the scientific approach and I find it deeply disturbing that science seems to be applying it to our most valuable resource – the full and frank communication of ideas and results.


Further reading: This article was inspired by blog posts by Michael Nielsen here and here.

Philip Ashton works in the Centre for Infections at the Health Protection Agency.

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