Monday, 25 May 2015

Tweeted Science

Razib Khan has written an interesting piece on the evolving norms of science:

I like his argument, and want to add to it. Scientific publishing as we know it today was an invention. The original scientific communications were letters written between one scholar and another, sometimes entirely private, sometimes read out to select local groups of fellow scholars. Science books were published, but the exchange of letters provided the everyday links between researchers, akin to that other publishing innovation: conference proceedings. Societies were the first publishers of scientific letters, and Nature originally regarded all the communications they received as no better than letters.

So, emails and blogs would be familiar in content and intent to Newton and Leibniz, even if the new technology would intrigue them, mildly. In fact, academic journals strike me as being the temporary historical aberration: scholars writing for nothing because their careers depend on it, and then paying to read what they have written for free. Nice work if you can get it. Disintermediation is under way, and the days of the current journal publishers are numbered. I doubt that the new journals that replace them will be free, nor ought they to be, but they will probably make publications available at far lower cost, whilst paying a wage to those who do the necessary work of keeping the system going. We are going back to scholar talking to scholar, the way it was and ought to be.

Razib drew attention to a recent complaint from a scholar defending himself against imputations of procedural errors in his published paper, namely that his critic “broke the “social norms” of science by initially posting the critique on Twitter”. Well, the scholar is right, or was right. Normally a critic would email the author in question, requesting explanations and further data. Then, in the traditional mode, the critic would eventually submit the written critical comment to a journal, usually the one that had published the original article, with an advance copy to the author as a courtesy. It would be sent for review, and might eventually appear long after the original paper had been published. The author would then reply, at leisure. In this light, a Tweet seems vulgar, premature, curt and peremptory. However, it very quickly alerts scholars to a potential error, which is a public service. Mistakes can be corrected quickly, and the search for the truth nimbly proceeds. Tweets are the vanguard of public science, science journals the rickety stage coach carrying the out of date news to a public who have moved on to more interesting things.

Reading Razib’s comments I found myself a little alarmed, and to my considerable surprise, slightly hurt, when he correctly observes of Twitter: It’s a public firm which is traded on the stock market and exists to make a profit and return value to its shareholders. There was a time when AOL, or Myspace, were ubiquitous corners of the internet. Though Twitter allows for a level of disintermediation, to some extent it is a stealth intermediary in and of itself.

I am a great fan of Twitter, though I hold no stock in the company, and see it as person to person communication, even as it becomes more commercial. I like the immediacy with which I receive news from conferences, alerts about upcoming publications, suggested readings from other researchers and a vibrant sense of the science community. I also get many disparate and sometimes entirely discordant views, which are instructive. Opinions are various, and although I believe I could do without many of them, it shows me how hard it is to convince people of things. A challenge for anyone who has ever wanted to explain anything.

Twitter has great limitations, and is often the cause of misunderstanding, sometimes of unintended rudeness, but I think the good far outweighs the bad. Not all thoughts are improved by verbosity. Brevity is the soul of thought. Twitter is fast, still cheap, and can have enormous impact across the globe. The immediacy of ideas is its forte.  I go so far as to say that it is one of the mechanisms transforming the communication of science.

(Please re-tweet this immediately).


  1. ''scholar'' is a invention too.


  2. Joke of month... ''razib's'' talk about rudeness in twitter, huahuahuahuahuahuahuahuahuahuahuahuahuahuahuahuahuahuahuahuahua


    1. I stopped reading his blog some years back, annoyed by his combination of arrogance and gaucheness.