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Richard Smith: Scientific communication is returning to its roots

Richard SmithA compelling piece in the Economist argues that social media are returning news to the “more vibrant, freewheeling, and discursive ways of the pre-industrial era” and that newspapers will prove to have been a historical aberration. The same, I think, will be true of scientific journals.

The first mass circulation newspaper, the Sun, appeared in New York in 1833. It cost one sixth of existing papers and soon sold 15 000 copies, three times as much as any other paper. Before that news travelled mainly by word of mouth in markets and taverns, although some writings spread rapidly rather as some emails and videos “go viral” these days. Luther’s writings reached all parts of Germany in two weeks in 1518, and within six months of its publication in January 1776 Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense had reached 250 000 people, half the population of what was about to become the USA.

Scientific journals began in the 17th century with the French Journal des Savants and the British Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Before that and even afterwards scientists went to meetings and presented their studies. The assembled scientists would then discuss and critique the studies. We can imagine the intensity, energy, and passion of those meetings. This was the original peer review: immediate and open.

The Sun was soon copied, and mass circulation newspapers “put control of the flow of information into the hands of a select few.” This remained the dominant model of disseminating views for 170 years, until the arrival of the internet. Radio and television followed the same model as the newspapers, the few sent messages to the many. The many could send letters to the newspapers, but this was essentially one way communication.

In the same way journals came to dominate scientific communication. The New England Journal of Medicine began in 1812, the Lancet in 1823, and the BMJ in 1840. Nature began in 1869 and Science in 1880.

But, the Economist says of newspapers, “the internet has disrupted this model and allowed the social aspect of media to reassert itself…blogs, Facebook, and Twitter may seem entirely new but they echo the way in which people used to collect, share, exchange information in the past.” Newspapers are now dying, and the Economist predicts that the media landscape will look very different by 2020 with only a few media organisations surviving the transition.

Although the “mass media era now looks like a relatively brief and anomalous,” it is seen as normal by those who have spent their careers in those organisations. Those stuck in the “old paradigm” have great difficulty imagining and accepting the “new paradigm.”

Scientific journals are lagging behind newspapers, but they are surely on the same course. Many find unacceptable the domination of a few journals and the huge profits made by some publishers from the scientific value produced by others, and the open access has begun for these and other reasons. Open access articles are increasing rapidly, and just in the past few years we have seen the appearance of many “megajournals” like PLoS One and BMJ Open, which are aiming to publish rapidly after light peer review that does not attempt the largely impossible job of  “spotting winners” but leaves readers to decide. Scientific blogs are becoming more important, and molecular biologists have for some time been leading the way by sharing their results immediately with each other through the internet.

We are slowly, as I’ve written many times before, moving to post-publication peer review where the scientific community judges what matters—not bewigged and gathered in one elegant room as in the 18th century but connected globally through the internet. It’s back to our roots.

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative. Competing interest: RS is on the board of the Public Library of Science but is not paid.