Malcolm Beasley, Stanford University
Professor Beasley commented on the symposium from the perspective of an interested practicing scientist working in the lab, with a physical science background. He shared an example of the use of print versus online journals in the physics community in Stanford, where the faculty now overwhelmingly use electronic journals. Only the older faculty still use print copies, and it will only be a very short time before online journals are used universally.
Professor Beasley’s first impression was that some sort of broad open access to scientific information bases of various kinds, including journals, is inevitable. It is too important not to have them. This is his view as a practicing scientist, and, although they are younger and naive, that is also the view of the students. It will not be simple to get there, and there are a wide variety of vested interests and issues that have to be accounted for. He believes that ultimately scientists will insist on it.
Nonetheless, he agrees with Monica Bradford from Science that this will be a tension-filled transition. That tension is not necessarily a bad thing if it is creative. Tension can also be destructive, however, so it will require strong and well-informed leadership to ensure that the tension is creative for science and all who partake in that enterprise.
His second impression is that “publishing” will not go away because it provides added value. The breakdown of the present system is forcing an examination of what those fundamental values added are in the existing publishing modes. Equally interesting are the alternatives in terms of publishing broadly defined to achieve things such as certification, formatting, and editing.
Most interesting to Professor Beasley are the new modes of value added that will be created. There are some wonderful ideas out there. Maybe three-quarters of them will not work, but it is the quarter that survive and provide the essential value added that will be wonderful to have and very interesting to see evolve.
Also, it is clear that access to information almost universally will continue to profoundly improve in speed and efficiency, and therefore have a similar effect on science. That is basically good, but it is important to deal with all that information and get to it with some sense of the quality, the various other types of value added that might be seen. Hyperspeed in itself is not the ultimate good; rather, it is speeding up the process of achieving understanding, as distinct from the acquisition of facts. We ultimately have to achieve understanding in science, and it may mean different things in different fields. During the symposium, Professor Beasley heard ideas that might implement that, but he did not hear a focus on what might be done to improve that aspect of the scientific enterprise. He thought that aspect of the scientific enterprise should have been brought into sharper focus. People are thinking about it, but it is important to stress that we do need to do that.
Professor Beasley thought that in addition to understanding the information we will be getting, we must find methods to improve and accelerate our ability to form good judgments on the basis of that information. There will be more information, which presumably will be better and received faster. To give a concrete example, he observed over his 30 to 40 years as a university professor that graduate students cannot read the literature. It is too abstract, has too much jargon, or has concepts they do not understand. Maybe this is something more specific to physical sciences, but simple access to it is not going to be enough.
As a university professor, he found some related issues as well. How will the faculty help students deal with the information? They may be more adept in using the tools, but they are not going to be adept in this essential value added. For example, there are personalized searches and virtual journals. There are in Science and Nature perspectives on some of the articles. He is an avid reader of those because they help him gain perspective, not only in his own field, but a bit more broadly.
The condensed-matter physics community is considering creating electronic journal clubs. There is a famous journal club in this community where individuals report on a paper selected because of its quality and importance, which is then presented and critiqued. This was a tradition at Bell Labs, which was initiated by Conyers Herring, a truly great physicist, and some of the alumni of Bell Labs are now trying to institutionalize that by putting it online somehow. Professor Beasley does not know whether it will work, but believes it is an excellent thing to try.