When Lisi published his physics paper, “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything,” to an online archive last year, it created a media buzz about his lifestyle and an onslaught of support and skepticism about his model. Although the verdict is still out on whether Lisi’s theory will prove predicatively accurate, the means by which he released and vetted his research point to a larger trend in the scientific community.
Barriers to data are falling, a cross-disciplinary community of commenters is replacing journal-selected peer reviewers, and “information to the people!” is becoming the raison d’être of the science information superhighway. The movement, combined with an evolving image of the contemporary scientist, is redefining how society interacts with science.
Why did you choose not to submit your paper to a traditional peer-reviewed journal?
I think peer review is important, but the journal-operated system is severely broken. I suspected this paper would get some attention, and I chose not to support any academic journal by submitting it. Under the current system, authors (who aren’t paid) give ownership of their papers to journals that have reviewers (who aren’t paid) approve them before publishing the papers and charging exorbitant fees to view them. These reviewers don’t always do a great job, and the journals aren’t providing much value in exchange for their fees. This old system persists because academic career advancement often depends on which journals scientists can get their papers into, and it comes at a high cost – in money, time, and stress. I think a better peer-review system could evolve from reviewers with good reputations picking the papers they find interesting out of an open pool, such as the physics arXiv, and commenting on them. This is essentially what happened with my paper, which received a lot of attention from physics bloggers – it’s been an example of open, collaborative peer review.
What is the alternative to the way problems in physics are typically approached?
I don’t think there is a typical way physics is being done; there’s a great deal of variation. But there does seem to be more pressure on young researchers than there should be, especially on post-docs and new professors. Science shouldn’t be a grind to publish more papers and advance a career – we’re supposed to be doing this because we love it and find it fascinating. High-quality work and interesting projects should be valued, not just a lengthy publication record. And since science helps society, I think society should be better to scientists and support them in doing the research they want, rather than requiring them to jump through so many hoops.
How will “open science” and other new ways of sharing information transform science?
I think we’re in the midst of a gradual revolution, following the rise of the Internet. The success of the physics arXiv – where physicists post freely available versions of their papers – has made it possible for anyone to access the literature from anywhere. This let me move to Maui 10 years ago and stay in touch with the field. Now an NIH mandate, requiring that publicly funded papers be posted to PubMed, will produce the same liberating effect in other fields. The net is also affecting the way scientists work directly, with wikis and blogs used for discussions, collaborations, and individual note keeping. These new tools, along with online social networks, allow geographically independent researchers to keep in perpetual, productive contact. Since theoretical researchers are no longer anchored to one location, I’ve been working on creating Science Hostels – micro-institutes in beautiful places where scientists could live and work, while having a bit of fun, and keeping more of a balance in their lives.
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