Last time Christopher Lee and I described some problems with scholarly publishing. The big problems are expensive journals and ineffective peer review. But we argued that solving these problems require new methods of
• selection—assessing papers
• endorsement—making the quality of papers known, thus giving scholars the prestige they need to get jobs and promotions.
The Selected Papers Network is an infrastructure for doing both these jobs in an open, distributed way. It’s not yet the solution to the big visible problems—just a framework upon which we can build those solutions. It’s just getting started, and it can use your help.
But before I talk about where all this is heading, and how you can help, let me say what exists now.
This is a bit dangerous, because if you’re not sure what a framework is for, and it’s not fully built yet, it can be confusing to see what’s been built so far! But if you’ve thought about the problems of scholarly publishing, you’re probably sick of hearing about dreams and hopes. You probably want to know what we’ve done so far. So let me start there.
SelectedPapers.net as it stands today
SelectedPapers.net lets you recommend papers, comment on them, discuss them, or simply add them to your reading list.
But instead of “locking up” your comments within its own website—the “walled garden” strategy followed by many other services—it explicitly shares these data in a way that people not on SelectedPapers.net can easily see. Any other service can see and use them too. It does this by using existing social networks—so that users of those social networks can see your recommendations and discuss them, even if they’ve never heard of SelectedPapers.net!
The idea is simple. You add some hashtags to let SelectedPapers.net know you’re talking to it, and to let it know which paper you’re talking about. It notices these hashtags and copies your comments over to its publicly accessible database.
So far Christopher Lee has got it working on Google+. So right now, if you’re a Google+ user, you can post comments on SelectedPapers.net using your usual Google+ identity and posting process, just by including suitable hashtags. Your post will be seen by your usual audience—but also by people visiting the SelectedPapers.net website, who don’t use Google+.
If you want to strip the idea down to one sentence, it’s this:
Given that social networks already exist, all we need for truly open scientific communication is a convention on a consistent set of tags and IDs for discussing papers.
That makes it possible to integrate discussion from all social networks—big and small—as a single unified forum. It’s a federated approach, rather than a single isolated website. And it won’t rely on any one social network: after Google+, we can get it working for Twitter and other networks and forums.
But more about the theory later. How, exactly, do you use it?
To see how it works, take a look here:
Under ‘Recent activity’ you’ll see comments and recommendations of different papers, so far mostly on the arXiv.
Support for other social networks such as Twitter is coming soon. But here’s how you can use it now, if you’re a member of Google+:
• We suggest that you first create (in your Google+ account) a Google+ Circle specifically for discussing research with (e.g. call it “Research”). If you already have such a circle, or circles, you can just use those.
• Click Sign in with Google on https://selectedpapers.net or on a paper discussion page.
• The usual Google sign-in window will appear (unless you are already signed in). Google will ask if you want to use the Selected Papers network, and specifically for what Circle(s) to let it see the membership list(s) (i.e. the names of people you have added to that Circle). SelectedPapers.net uses this as your initial “subscriptions”, i.e. the list of people whose recommendations you want to receive. We suggest you limit this to your “Research” circle, or whatever Circle(s) of yours fit this purpose.
Note the only information you are giving SelectedPapers.net access to is this list of names; in all other respects SelectedPapers.net is limited by Google+ to the same information that anyone on the internet can see, i.e. your public posts. For example, SelectedPapers.net cannot ever see your private posts within any of your Circles.
• Now you can initiate and join discussions of papers directly on any SelectedPapers.net page.
• Alternatively, without even signing in to SelectedPapers.net, you can just write posts on Google+ containing the hashtag #spnetwork, and they will automatically be included within the SelectedPapers.net discussions (i.e. indexed and displayed so that other people can reply to them etc.). Here’s an example of a Google+ post example:
This article by Perelman outlines a proof of the Poincare conjecture!
#spnetwork #mustread #geometry #poincareConjecture arXiv:math/0211159
You need the tag #spnetwork for SelectedPapers.net to notice your post. Tags like #mustread, #recommend, and so on indicate your attitude to a paper. Tags like #geometry, #poincareConjecture and so on indicate a subject area: they let people search for papers by subject. A tag of the form arXiv:math/0211159 is necessary for arXiv papers; note that this does not include a # symbol.
For PubMed papers, include a tag of the form PMID:22291635. Other published papers usually have a DOI (digital object identifier), so for those include a tag of the form doi:10.3389/fncom.2012.00001.
Tags are the backbone of SelectedPapers.net; you can read more about them here.
• You can also post and see comments at https://selectedpapers.net. This page also lets you search for papers in the arXiv and search for published papers via their DOI or Pubmed ID. If you are signed in, the homepage will also show the latest recommendations (from people you’re subscribed to), papers on your reading list, and papers you tagged as interesting for your work.
Papers are the center of just about everything on the selected papers network. Here’s what you can currently do with a paper:
• click to see the full text of the paper via the arXiv or the publisher’s website.
• read other people’s recommendations and discussion of the paper.
• add it to your Reading List. This is simply a private list of papers—a convenient way of marking a paper for further attention later. When you are logged in, your Reading list is shown on the homepage. No one else can see your reading list.
• share the paper with others (such as your Google+ Circles or Google+ communities that you are part of).
• tag it as interesting for a specific topic. You do this either by clicking the checkbox of a topic (it shows topics that other readers have tagged the paper), by selecting from a list of topics that you have previously tagged as interesting to you, or by simply typing a tag name. These tags are public; that is, everyone can see what topics the paper has been tagged with, and who tagged them.
• post a question or comment about the paper, or reply to what other people have said about it. This traffic is public. Specifically, clicking the Discuss this Paper button gives you a Google+ window (with appropriate tags already filled in) for writing a post. Note that in order for the spnet to see your post, you must include Public in the list of recipients for your post (this is an inherent limitation of Google+, which limits apps to see only the same posts that any internet user would see – even when you are signed-in to the app as yourself on Google+).
• recommend it to others. Once again, you must include Public in the list of recipients for your post, or the spnet cannot see it.
We strongly suggest that you include a topic hashtag for your research interest area. For example, if there is a hashtag that people in your field commonly use for posting on Twitter, use it. If you have to make up a new hashtag, keep it intuitive and follow “camelCase” capitalization e.g. #openPeerReview.
Note that thanks to our open design, you do not even need to create a SelectedPapers.net login. Instead, SelectedPapers.net authenticates with Google (for example) that you are signed in to Google+; you never give SelectedPapers.net your Google password or access to any confidential information.
Moreover, even when you are signed in to SelectedPapers.net using your Google sign-in, it cannot see any of your private posts, only those you posted publicly—in other words, exactly the same as what anybody on the Internet can see.
What to do next?
We really need some people to start using SelectedPapers.net and start giving us bug reports. The place to do that is here:
or if that’s too difficult for some reason, you can just leave a comment on this blog entry.
We could also use people who can write software to improve and expand the system. I can think of fifty ways the setup could be improved: but as usual with open-source software, what matters most is not what you suggest, but what you’re willing to do.
Next, let mention three things we could do in the longer term. But I want to emphasize that these are just a few of many things that can be done in the ecosystem created by a selected papers network. We don’t need to all do the same thing, since it’s an open, federated system.
• Overlay journals. A journal doesn’t need to do distribution and archiving of papers anymore: the arXiv or PubMed can do that. A journal can focus on the crucial work of selection and endorsement—it can just point to a paper on the arXiv or PubMed, and say “this paper is published”. Such journals, called overlay journals, are already being contemplated—see for example Tim Gowers’ post. But they should work better in the ecosystem created by a selected papers network.
• Review boards. Publication doesn’t need to be a monogamous relation between a journal and an author. We could also have prestigious ‘review boards’ like the Harvard Genomics Board or the Institute of Network Science who pick, every so often, what they consider to be best papers in their chosen area. In their CVs, scholars could then say things like “this paper was chosen as one of the Top Ten Papers in Topology in 2015 by the International Topology Review Board”. Of course, boards would become prestigious in the usual recursive way: by having prestigious members, being associated with prestigious institutions, and correctly choosing good papers to bestow prestige upon. But all this could be done quite cheaply.
• Open peer review. Last time, we listed lots of problems with how journals referee papers. Open peer review is a way to solve these problems. I’ll say more about it next time. For now, go here:
• Christopher Lee, Open peer review by a selected-papers network, Frontiers of Computational Neuroscience 6 (2012).
A federated system
After reading this, you may be tempted to ask: “Doesn’t website X already do most of this? Why bother starting another?”
Here’s the answer: our approach is different because it is federated. What does that mean? Here’s the test: if somebody else were to write their own implementation of the SelectedPapers.net protocol and run it on their own website, would data entered by users of that site show up automatically on selectedpapers.net, and vice versa? The answer is yes, because the protocol transports its data on open, public networks, so the same mechanism that allows selectedpapers.net to read its users’ messages would work for anyone else. Note that no special communications between the new site and SelectedPapers.net would be required; it is just federated by design!
One more little website is not going to solve the problems with journals. The last thing anybody wants is another password to remember! There are already various sites trying to solve different pieces of the problem, but none of them are really getting traction. One reason is that the different sites can’t or won’t talk to each other—that is, federate. They are walled gardens, closed ecosystems. As a result, progress has been stalled for years.
And frankly, even if some walled garden did eventually eventually win out, that wouldn’t solve the problem of expensive journals. If one party became able to control the flow of scholarly information, they’d eventually exploit this just as the journals do now.
So, we need a federated system, to make scholarly communication openly accessible not just for scholars but for everyone—and to keep it that way.