Scholarly information is mostly distributed by a Web-based system (Come on, grad students, when was the last time you read a physical article that was published after 1995?), and with this comes a complete overload of information. Adding to the overload of legitimate articles, many predatory journals have popped up solely to make a buck off of unwitting scientists who are eager to publish. These pseudo-journals claim to be peer-reviewed, so how do naive scientists know which publications to avoid? For that matter, how do we know which articles from established journals to read? The ones with the most citations, you may say, but citations take a while to rack up and the first has to come from somewhere.
Nature has a recent article surmising an upcoming shift in how we, as scientists, find worthwhile papers. Basically, they say it will all come down to a Google-style search engine.
“Its PageRank algorithm weights hyperlinks from authoritative sources more heavily. To find which sources count as authoritative, the same algorithm is applied to each of the source’s inbound links, and so on. This simple recursive algorithm has proved remarkably effective, and requires minimal manual tuning. It simply harnesses the quality judgments already being made by the community, implicit in their decisions to link to other pages. This core approach is also the future for scholarly communication.”
This is a great idea, sure. Instead of three unpaid reviewers and a single editor deciding the legitimacy of a journal article, the whole community decides. And it’s automatic!
But will this leave new PIs ranked far behind the long-running “authoritative” professors? Will successful PIs hold a monopoly over their field as their papers are weighted “more heavily?” Will this make the already aggressive world of academia even more difficult to break into?
And maybe as a secondary concern, will this allow hacking of academic journals? Would clever programmers be able to trick the search engine to display their papers first, accruing the most hits?
The Nature article does discuss some concerns, but, honestly, I can’t think of another way to deal with the never-ending supply of science coming from thousands upon thousands of graduate intuitions in the world. Nevertheless, it’s exciting to see what will happen, for better or for worse, to scientific publishing.