PubMed 2.0? Lessons for scientific literature in the digital age.

Radical growth is afoot in the world of scientific literature. From 1950-2000 there was a steady increase in the article publication rate, but far more striking is the growth since 2000 (see Featured Image, which shows the MEDLINE-indexed articles per year 1950-2010). To develop a conceptual framework for the opportunities and costs presented by this, we would do well to turn to some examples from established literature on media in the digital age.

Digital technology, in particular social media, has changed the way we operate.  Clay Shirky [1],  describes how this is happening. The suggested framework can be described as ascending up a ladder, with increasing complexity and difficulty, but also greater potential outcome with each step.

Step 1: Information sharing

In the early 2000s, devotees of Brooklyn’s Coney Island Mermaid Parade used Flickr to achieve a far larger forum for photo sharing than was ever previously possible. By previous communication standards, the event organiser would’ve probably had to hire individual photographers, and each photograph would have put forward to traditional media outlets, competing with many other newsworthy features for attention. The organiser may also have then advertised the following year. At each step of this process toward the sharing of information, transaction cost is incurred. Flickr provided a means to dramatically reduce this cost, and so, allowed for a previously unprecedented forum for sharing for this event.

Flickr demonstrates one aspect of Web 2.0 (a term referring to web-based applications with a certain set of characteristics described by O’Reilly [2]) in that it provides a service – rather than packaged software – and this service includes cost-effective scalability.

Step 2 and 3: Cooperation and Collaborative Production

In the 15th-century, the invention of the printing press changed not only the speed of producing written documents, but it also brought about the imminent demise of the Scribe. A similar process unfolds today in the shift from traditional media to user-as-contributor media sources. While diversifying the number of potential sources for the reader, the discerning feature of this change is the transfer of capability from professional to non-professional.

Web 2.0 shows us that even within the digital age, the process of collaborative production has been enhanced. Newpedia – a precursor to Wikipedia – failed to gain traction because it required seven stages of editorial process before publication. Wikipedia by contrast (“Wiki” means “quick” in Hawaiian) has been successful thanks to its “radical display of trust” in allowing users to instantly contribute, exemplifying a key feature of a web 2.0 company: “trusting users as co-developers.”

Step 4: Collective Action

The above concepts can be extended when a group comes together to take decisive action. A notable example from the book is the newfound ability of parishioners within the Catholic Church to put a stop to sexual abuse from priests. What set successful and failed attempts to bring perpetrators to justice was the ability to form groups within parishes, to disseminate information easily and to develop links between parishes. This progress was achieved by the reduced transaction cost of communicating.

The church did not see that that the prior role of the media had actually been taken over by the parishioners, and that it would now be impossible, despite their attempts, to stop interaction between parishes. This highlights the importance of allowing groups to organise themselves and can be seen by the capability of Web2.0 applications like Facebook.

How does this relate to some other digital concepts?

Metcalfe’s Law:
The value of a network is [nonexponentially] proportional to the square of the number of users in the system.

Reed’s Law:
The value of a network is exponentially related to the ability to form groups within the network.

User generated content changed the role of the reader from audience to community member. It is this shift which aptly reflects why Reed’s Law has an exponential relationship to utility of group size, while Metcalfe’s Law has a much less dramatic effect. The ability to form groups within a network could here be likened to forming a community, insofar as forming a group increases the likelihood to contribute.

What does this mean for the scientific literature?

The growth of available literature warrants a critique of the applicability of the current peer-review system to (i) its production and (ii) how it is accessed.

The gold standard of scientific publication has been the peer review, whereby a few experts are chosen to critically review potential publications. The advantage of such an approach is the ability to filter worthy from unworthy, thereby setting a professional standard. While Shirky even goes so far as to set the likes of medicine on a pedestal – where we wouldn’t tolerate any lowering in standards – it is indeed worth considering if this will become practically possible. At the very least, it would seem necessary that the privilege of peer reviewer be extended to a greater proportion of those in scientific professions, a process which may be resisted by those under the influence of narcissistic bias.

Gathering momentum in the scientific community is the concept of Open Access: research characterised by a lack of any toll on access, and sometimes a lack of restrictions on usage. There are also lower costs to securing a publication in an Open Access journal. The idea represents a reduction in the transaction cost of sharing and collaboratively producing scientific literature. Proponents of the status quo institutions say that they are becoming even more necessary as it is becoming harder to sift the good from the mediocre [3].

Priem and colleagues [4] open our eyes to a solution: “altmetrics”. The term refers to search tools that are able to cope with the increasing volume of data by changing the nature of the search. Instead of the traditional focus on citations as primary marker of impact, altmetrics incorporates more diverse measures, like breaking articles down into their composite parts and incorporating the contributions from the blogosphere, where a great deal of scientific conversation happens. What’s more, they may even provide a means to crowdsource peer-review.

The wider scientific community would benefit from a thoughtful discussion about the role of new technologies in the production of and access to the literature.


[1] Shirky, C. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Penguin 2008. ISBN 978-1-59420-153-0
[2] O’Reilly, T. What is Web 2.0?
[3] Van Noorden, R. Open Access: The True Cost of Science Publishing. Nature 495,426–429 (28 March 2013) doi:10.1038/495426a
[4] J. Priem, D. Taraborelli, P. Groth, C. Neylon (2010), Altmetrics: A manifesto, 26 October 2010.


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