A guest post by Mick
Something really weird is happening in science right now, it seems that the blogosphere is changing the nature of scientific discourse.
A great example of this, and one that I’m familiar with because it’s a flame war that’s been raging in my field, made its way to the New York Times a few weeks back. Now I won’t go on too much about this stoush, but it involves the recent public demonstration of “The World’s first commercial quantum computer” (TM) by D-Wave systems, a Vancouver-based tech startup. The controversy really erupted when Dave and Scott, two well-known quantum computing theorists and who also happen to be bloggers, posted articles that were sceptical of D-Wave’s demonstration and the huge amount of misinformation and hype that seemed to be emanating from D-Wave’s CEO, Herb Martin, and also from their founder (and fellow quantum blogger) Geordie Rose. The ensuing stoush involved some of the biggest names in the field of quantum computing and involved dialogue between people with no knowledge at all about the field through to tenured MIT professors. The argument wasn’t just a public name-calling match, it evolved from a blog stoush into a very serious scientific discussion about the direction of some cutting-edge research into which many millions of dollars are invested. The big deal was that this discussion happened in public and in real time.
The normal process for discussing and distributing new scientific results throughout the academic community arguably goes like this:
1. Do science
2. Write a paper
3. Release the paper to the public and submit the paper to a journal for peer review, then wait between 4 and 24 months for the paper to be published.
4. Advertise/discuss the paper at conferences by giving talks, having stoushes, and if you are so inclined by getting boozed with your friends and occasionally diverting the conversation by to that great thing that you did in Step 1 and how boring you found Steps 2 and 3.
5. Repeat steps 1 – 4 until you retire
While this process isn’t exactly cast in stone, it is what occurs more often than not and most perceived variations are due to parallelizing this process. One of the BIG developments in my field, quantum physics, over the last 10 years or so has been the increased use of the internet to speed up Step 3, the public release of papers. Once upon a time a paper was essentially invisible to the general community until it had been peer-reviewed and published, nowadays most of us upload our papers to the pre-print arXiv at about the same time that we submit a paper to a journal so that everyone in the field can get a heads up on what you are working on before it is published.
The internet had helped the whole process of DOING SCIENCE to go very smoothly and even faster than before, that is until those kids with their pesky interwebs began to interfere in the way that they tend to. We are increasingly seeing the kind of scientific stoushes that tend to happen in the pages of journals, at conferences, and in personal conversations occurring on blogs for everyone to see. Scientific arguments are turning into flame wars. While Slashdot, arguably one of the first real blogs, has always been home to scientific flamewars the arguments that occur there tend not to advance much beyond the undergraduate level. What we are witnessing now is first class scientists, the kind that have tenure at places like MIT, Berkely, Oxford, Cambridge, and Caltech, publicly slugging one another on TEH INTERTUBES.
A lot of people in my field are beginning to wonder whether we are going to see blogs used more and more in the scientific process. Tied up in all of this is a growing antagonism that many feel towards scientific journals. Publishing papers in journals is increasingly being seen as an unnecessary burden as the internet has made it much easier to prepare, produce, and distribute scientific papers than it ever was with any journal. Many scientists feel that the only reasons that we cling to the concept of journal publication is because it allows a system of peer-review and because it is THE ACCEPTED WAY. It will be very interesting to see if we are still using journals in the same way in ten years time, my bet is that we won’t.