Thursday, January 25, 2007

Web 2.0 and the End of Science?

Gregory Lamb has written has written an extended, and probably troubling, article for The Christian Science Monitor entitled "Is this the end of the scholarly journal?" Lamb is far from the first to invoke the Internet as a point of departure for asking this question, but he has summoned an interesting collection of interviews and examples to explore it. This is enough to make his article worthy of examination.

The first source that Lamb quotes (in his third paragraph) immediately gives us a sense of where the wind is blowing. He is Mark Gerstein, a professor of biomedical informatics at Yale University and author of an article entitled "The Death of the Scientific Paper," which, as one might guess, has been published online. Here is the Gerstein quote:

The traditional journal publishing medium we've grown used to really needs to evolve and change because that's not the way people are accessing information.

"Accessing" and "information" are two relatively innocuous words; but, when they are combined, they never fail to send a chill down my spine, particularly because they have become a familiar mantra among the Web 2.0 evangelists. When did science become a matter of "accessing information?" No historian of science would find that phrase associated with Galileo or Einstein, although I suppose that much of the controversy surrounding Rosalind Franklin had to do with the fact that it was "her" imaging data that sent Crick and Watson down the path to the double helix. Nevertheless, the stories we read of Galileo, Einstein, and the double helix researchers (not to mention the vivid memoirs of Feynman) are primarily stories of observation and reflection. Have the new "informatic" disciplines displaced those fundamental practices that make science what it is; and, if we have lost those practices, can we really claim to be doing science any more?

The question is not one of whether online circulation of research documents is an improvement over the old-fashioned practices of journal editing and publication. Rather, the question involves what is happening to what Bruno Latour called "science in action," i.e. what it is that scientists do by virtue of which we recognize them as scientists. The legacy of observation and reflection reaches all the way back to a time when "scientist" was not in the working vocabulary and those reflective observers were called "natural philosophers," because their observations were directed at the natural world, rather than metaphysics. However, that legacy now seems to be running into a confrontation with what we might call the "Web 2.0 mentality," the result of which may end up being a major overhaul in our thoughts about both "science as a concept" and "science in action."

Before Web 2.0 became a buzz phrase, there was already a considerable amount of dime-store philosophizing over how Google and Wikipedia were changing the world. What seemed to be overlooked in the philosophizing was what these tools were actually doing: They were the new mechanisms for delivering answers; and, as a result, they were inspiring other innovative approaches to how the Internet could be used as an answer-delivery mechanism, some of which involved more powerful analytic techniques while others pursued to cultivation of social networks. These were the building blocks from which the glib entrepreneurs and venture capitalists could start infecting the general public with the "Web 2.0 meme!"

Does this have anything to do with science? Yes, science is driven by how we ask questions about the natural world and how answers to those questions drive us to ask more questions. This certainly does not diminish the value of the answers themselves; but it does call the concept of "delivery" into question, whether we choose to interpret it literally or metaphorically. Consider a Gedankenexperiment: Suppose you were occupied with the question of whether there is a connection between a woman's genetic structure and her risk of developing breast cancer. Suppose now that one day FedEx comes to your laboratory with a package. Inside the package is an old lamp and a worn-out book declaring this to be the legendary lamp of Aladdin and providing instructions for its use (including the loophole for being allowed more than three wishes). As a scientist you decided to test the lamp and genie with several challenging questions whose answers you already know, and the performance of each test is flawless. If you now decide to put your breast cancer question to the genie, would you be doing science?

At this point I am sure that my experiment will be challenged: How can you compare the Internet to Aladdin's lamp? Aren't you forgetting the ways in which the Internet connects you to your peer scientists around the world? This is sort of the "Cluetrain" strategy: It's all about the conversations. One of Lamb's unnamed sources stressed the importance of the principle that placing a scientific document online begins a conversation of annotations, comments, and critiques, thus becoming an "electronic Talmud."

I would not deny this challenge. I would just go back to the original question of priorities: What is at stake for you, my imaginary researcher? If an answer can be "delivered" by a mechanism that has nothing to do with "science in action," is that "delivery" an acceptable (desirable?) substitute for all the frustrations surrounding old-fashioned observation and reflection? Well, if you have a multi-million dollar grant from Pfizer supporting your efforts to answer the question, I am pretty confident that you would not refuse the lamp! You might draw heavily upon the Internet to write up your conclusions in a way that concealed the role of the lamp; and, in so doing, you would then find yourself back in the world of "science in action." However, sooner or later, word would get out about the lamp; and then concealment would no longer be necessary, nor would the practice of science as we know it!

I have tried hard to be judgment-free in developing this argument; but I shall not hide the fact that I believe that losing the skills of observation and reflection would be to our disadvantage. Nevertheless, I do believe that reflection is best exercised as a combination of solitary and group practices; and, on the basis of personal experiences, I have great appreciation for how the Internet (going back to the days before it was called the Internet) has helped me with my own reflective practices. Where I start to choke is when the Cluetrain crowd comes along and tries to convert those reflective practices into markets (and then the Web 2.0 crowd comes along in their wake to sell the platforms for those markets)! I also choke over the recognition that the practice of science has become like a horse that is constantly being whipped by the economic value of answers. Such a horse can go only so far before breaking down entirely; and that is why I fear that the "buzz" around the end of the scientific journal is actually an ugly omen of the end of the practice of science as we know it.

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