March 02, 2012

Stone tablets to the Web: The evolution of scientific publishing in the digital age

JL Sartin and FF Bartol

Early communications of research results were oral or written in the forms of letters to friends and colleagues. Although the current printed format has served as a useful form of communication of research results between scientists, opportunities presented by digital media and web access suggest that another evolution in research communication may be emerging. What form these changes may ultimately take is unknown, but there is a unique opportunity for us to participate in developing a vision for the format of the new research paper. The American Society of Animal Science publishes the premier journal in animal science and as such must be a part of the process in developing the full potential of digital publishing. This is an exciting time to open our minds and explore new forms of publishing in a digital age on the World Wide Web. Ideas presented here are provided to stimulate discourse among members of our Society as to the future of our publications.

While in some ways it is easy not to miss browsing Current Contents and writing those stacks of reprint cards, have we lost something in the age of computer searches on increasingly narrow topics? It may be that we have lost important interactions between our disciplines and the greater world of scientific thought. If we no longer peruse all of the interesting tables of contents we can miss important ideas and techniques, pioneered in other fields that are relevant to our efforts and interests. One important change to future manuscripts may the ability to link similar articles, concepts, or data sets to one another. For example, within an article the hormone leptin could be hyper-linked to leptin in the disciplines of nutrition, reproduction or immunology as well as to gene, protein receptor and signaling databases. Moreover, one could explore interrelationships between leptin and other regulatory molecules. Not only could these links be provided for context, but linking to movies or other image-based media might enhance understanding in new ways not possible with print media. Information about authors could be provided, to include such things as a publication history, CV, citation networks or other pertinent facts. It has been suggested that references could be interpreted (via links) within the context of the article as it is read. One component of a digital publishing system that seems interesting and applicable would be to collect selected works into a virtual folder for students as a course reading assignment. These papers would then be linked to other teaching resources or commentaries. The implications and possibilities are limited only by our imaginations.

One shortcoming that is often cited for current research articles is the absence of raw data for review. With digital publishing, raw data can be provided to the reader and linked easily to tables or figures. Such information not only contributes to transparency and validity of the science, but could also affect the efficiency with which we extract information from complex data sets via meta-analysis. For example, it might be possible for other readers to find additional meanings in published works through data mining and reanalysis of the original, raw data sets.  This could reduce unnecessary repetition of research experiments or, at least aid in refinement of experimental designs by providing novel insights and perspectives. It might also allow granting agencies to fully explore information generated at their expense. Of course, there are obvious issues and challenges to be addressed with this level of transparency. While an author may like the idea of data not being discarded and support full disclosure of results as outlined above, questions remain with respect to where data should be stored and how the data are best preserved and protected from alteration. While such issues abound as we adopt these types of supplemental data submissions, it is not uncommon for journals to accept or request supplemental data, notably Science, Biology of Reproduction and Endocrinology.

Evaluation of manuscript quality or the impact of an author or group of authors based on impact factor or h-index have inherent qualities that allow question of their value. The digital manuscript may allow for more precise evaluation. More interestingly, with the digital paper of the future, the potential exists to assess a paper and its relationships and connectivity among publications in diverse fields as they may affect agricultural, biological or biomedical thought. The ability to place work into the larger context of science may also allow clearer evaluations of impact by granting agencies and administrators.

There are obvious benefits to the American Society of Animal Science in moving to more sophisticated forms of digital publishing and digital libraries. For example, an author link from a given publication might be structured to not only their publication list but also links to committee assignments held in the Society, links to the authors web page, to research collaborator’s laboratories or to former mentors or former graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The digital library for the Association for Computing Machinery (www.acm.org/dl) provides an author picture, contact information, numbers of downloads of articles, citations per article, publication numbers and the years of active publication. Another possibility is that links could be provided to society-specific content such as webinars or podcasts. The possibility of incorporating social networking sites to the manuscripts and providing a framework for professional membership interaction could be a valuable means of initiating contact and discussion with other members of the Society. Discussion boards or messaging tools incorporated into manuscripts could allow questions about methodology and facilitate development of collaborative ventures. In addition, links to other related articles in the Journal of Animal Science and Animal Frontiers could encourage reading of additional papers in our journals and enhance exposure and citations of our work.

Clearly there are many hurdles to overcome before all or some of these changes will appear in the Journal of Animal Science. However, many journals and Societies are moving in this direction. Elsevier has released a publication of the future as a result of competitions to inspire new concepts in publishing. Please visit http://www.articleofthefuture.com/history to read about and view an example of the Elsevier project. For an academic discussion of the issues surrounding these types of changes, please see the following article which was liberally used for ideas in this paper: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/alpsp/lp/2009/00000022/00000002/art00002?token=00621f2f94efa3c92bfacaa437a63736a6f3b47415d7e662a442e744a6f644a467c79675d7c4e724770ea016e6fd5d9c3a .