Tuesday, January 11, 2005
Besides Steve Hsu, another physicist-blogger I noticed at Crooked Timber is fellow cosmologist Andrew Jaffe. He has a couple of posts up about science publishing on the web. Of course, physicists have historically been in the vanguard of electronic dissemination of information, beginning spectacularly with the invention of the World-Wide-Web at CERN. In the particular case of scientific papers, Paul Ginsparg's arxiv.org (originally based at Los Alamos, now at Cornell) had a revolutionary impact. Each morning you can read the titles and abstracts of every paper submitted the previous day, and download and print the full text of those that strike your interest. The increase in speed and convenience over ordinary journals seems slight, but the impact is huge. It used to be that researchers that were "in the loop" would receive preprints from their colleagues, giving them a noticeable advantage over more isolated workers who had to wait months for the journals to appear.
Equally important, although rarely mentioned, is the straightforward advantage of one-stop shopping -- rather than leafing through a dozen journals, and still possibly missing some interesting papers, every paper worth reading goes to a single site. It is so convenient that plenty of people (myself included) will often go to arxiv.org to print out a copy of their own paper, rather than go through the effort of digging it up in a file. The convenience is enhanced considerably by the citation service of the SPIRES database in high-energy physics (and the similar NASA Astrophysics Data System), which tells you which papers have been cited by which other papers, constructing an instantly searchable network of references. (And, something also convenient but less obviously beneficial, a way to rate one's worth as a scientist. [Which gives me a nice way to smoothly insert a link to the Hot Paper by Mark Hoffman, Mark Trodden, and me.])
One of the reason why these systems sprung up most easily in high-energy physics and astrophysics is because those subfields have very little commercial application! The stakes are (mostly) intellectual, and millions of dollars are not at risk if someone reads your paper before it is peer-reviewed. Indeed, workers in these fields are becoming increasingly convinced that peer review is kind of a nuisance, since the only people who care about these results are fellow researchers who can judge for themselves whether a paper is interesting or not. That's why the Bogdanov affair (in which some French demi-celebrities were accused, incorrectly, of "spoofing" physicists by publishing nonsense papers) was more interesting to outsiders than physicists -- bad papers get published all the time, we just ignore them. In other fields, it's more important that non-experts can assume that published work has been vetted by reliable researchers; putting every paper out on a free preprint server is a dicier proposition. Nevertheless, efforts like the Public Library of Science are attempting to make scientific and medical results freely accessible, even if not quite as quickly and conveniently as the arxiv does for physics.
Interestingly, the blog model has found physicists lagging behind the rest of the world; just look how the list of academic blogs at Crooked Timber or Bitch, Ph.D. are dominated by the social sciences and humanities. Jacques Distler is one of the few physicists who actually uses his blog to talk about research-level questions with fellow string theorists, and the String Coffee Table is a way to allow anyone to join in. More recently there have been a couple of couple of other attempts along these lines: Physics Comments gathers papers from the arxiv and provides a space to discuss them, while CosmoCoffee is aimed more narrowly at cosmology, and makes some effort to limit membership to working cosmologists.
We'll see how these new efforts work. I'm hopeful but somewhat skeptical. At some point, more communication isn't what the field needs; it needs more results to communicate about, or at least more good results, or at least more quiet time to think about getting some results. I think that the current lines of communication between professional physicists are pretty good; papers are disseminated rapidly, most institutions have frequent seminars, and nobody is complaining that there aren't enough conferences. Compared to talking to someone in person, chatting about technical results on the Web is necessarily clumsy, even if (as Jacques and others have done) some effort is put into allowing equations to be displayed nicely.
On the other hand, the lines of communication between professional scientists and interested non-scientists could use a great deal of improvement, and there might be a future for blogs in this capacity. If I were a more public-spirited person, I would resist the temptation to clutter this blog with politics and philosophy, and make a real effort to stick to explaining physics and cosmology to non-experts. But it wouldn't be as much fun.