The future of competition
Man, I am SO far behind on my blog posts; I have 5-6 topics swirling in my head, half-written, half-researched, or in some alternative form of partial existence. But a recent comment by David Featherstone on the previous entry warranted a new thread to see if we can spur on additional discussion. At issue is competition and how it affects the way people do science, and here is David’s fear:
Which leads us into a discussion of Web 2.0 or Publishing 2.0 or whatever the heck the term is for the recently popular idea that science should be published fast online and decorated with ongoing reader feedback. Carrying this model to a logical extension, will I be able to do an experiment in the morning and have it online by the end of the day? What will that do to the careful pace of science? Will publishing turn into a continuous frantic scramble where priority in top journals/websites can be lost by getting a good night’s sleep before submission, reflecting on the data a couple days, or getting feedback from colleagues?
Well let’s hear it. Is Web 2.0 technology actually harmful to the future of careful scientific research?
For me, I believe that there will always be people out there who view science as their occupation as opposed to their passion. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. It’s a fun, flexible job that can help pay the bills (well, as long as you don’t live in NYC, SF, LA…okay fine, the pay sucks for the training required; a topic for another time…). These researchers may indeed follow a more frantic careless pace, only worried about the short-term personal gains as opposed to the long-term value of the discovery. Therefore, as long as the results are mostly correct, why not get it out there first to get the credit and, hopefully, the advancement that can come with it?? This could very well produce a poisonous, competitive environment that could cause the rigor of science to suffer, to which David alludes.
However, I feel that the vast majority of researchers actually have a passion for scientific research, and it just so happens that being a scientist is also their occupation. These researchers will be loathe to have their name attached to anything that is not well-described, understood, or potentially erroneous. The pace of research may indeed pick up with the introduction of web-based publishing (or blog-based, or other such means), but not because of a worry of competition, but because information dissemination will be vastly improved and quickened. With the use of Web 2.0 technology, researchers will not have to wait months to see important results if they happen to miss their big subfield-centric meeting. In fact, look already at the popularity of “AOP” (advance online publication) and how that has improved the turn-around time for getting results out. And, as always, pre-print servers like Nature Precedings still offer a way to get a full manuscript out in the public at whatever time the researchers feel comfortable tipping their hand.
Perhaps I am being naïve, but I just can’t accept that scientists will short-circuit their own personal comfort zone of feeling confident in results on a broad, wide-scale, pathological, and recurring manner. It would only take one marginally significant foul-up, or the embarrassment of posting inaccurate data, to eliminate the bad habit of pulling the trigger too soon. Just like single-trial fear conditioning in rodents, the great 80s band Great White said it best – Once bitten, twice shy.