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Arsenic gives aspiration: Twitter and Open Access Publishing

June 1, 2011

Passionate researchers want to figure it out. We want to understand nature, to identify what is and why it is that way. We want to know.

And when we know something, we want to tell others about it. But the way scientists communicate is outdated. The system is broken. And our attempts to fix it are on the wrong track.

Fortunately, there is hope. There is hope in arsenic. Or, to be more precise, in #arseniclife.

Open Access (OA) is touted as the answer to our communication problems; it’s supposed to be Scientific Publishing 2.0. In its most idealistic form, OA will provide the results of research, free of charge, to the world.

“You get what you pay for,” the skeptics suggest. And they conclude that OA must lack adequate quality control. This is where the conversation gets derailed.

Advocates of OA answer that their quality control system is as good as traditional publishing. But is that our goal? Is as good as good enough?

Publishing reform should be radical. If we’re going to change things, let’s think much more fundamentally. Let’s ask ourselves where we can find OA’s competitive advantage.

We should, for example, embrace the successes of social media. OA has to beat its traditional competitor not just by changing the business model, but by doing a better job of quality control and a better job of dissemination. OA can only succeed if it serves both scientists and society better. Social media can help.

This is where #arseniclife comes in. #arseniclife is the twitter hashtag that is appended to tweets about a recent research paper on the building blocks of life. The paper claims to have identified a bacterium that “substitutes arsenic for phosphorus to sustain its growth” and the authors thereby obtain a result with significant implications for the search for life. The paper was published on the Science Express website in December, 2010.

Its appearance triggered a lively debate, much of it on Twitter, often by well-qualified scientists. When the paper appears in print on June 3rd, Science will also publish some of the discussion it has already generated, as detailed in Carl Zimmer’s recent Slate article.

The paper’s contribution is greater because it was posted on the internet and debated. Imagine doing that with your own work. Post it, get a discussion started, and use the feedback to improve your research and your writing. Processes like this can become normal; they could be embraced by OA journals.

Smart use of social media represents the potential for a quantum leap in quality control of research results. Social media certainly create the possibility of much quicker feedback, debate and impact. The #arseniclife experience has shown that this can work; it’s shown that social media have a role in scientific publishing.

But we must aspire to more. You might think that using social media in science is a crazy idea. But when it comes to quality control and the dissemination of new knowledge, I’d rather say that it isn’t crazy enough!

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