The Future of Research Communications and e-Scholarship

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Last July, I attended the very rewarding Dagstuhl Perspectives Workshop on Open Science and e-Science in Psychology and the Behavioral Sciences.  I had always regretted missing the workshop that led to the founding of FORCE11 and so was thrilled to finally make it there four years later.  So much has happened since then that it’s hard to believe that the idea of FORCE11 is only four years old.

At Dagstuhl, we did a mini version of what I had wanted to do on a large scale for some time: Defining the Scholarly Commons. I had been inspired by the 1K Challenge submission by Sarah Callaghan at the FORCE2015 meeting.  What if we just started from scratch and designed a system for current technology instead of trying to adapt our current pre-digital system?  Such an exercise would cause us to examine our assumptions about the way things should be. And,  once we knew what a system should look like, we could see how close we were to achieving it.

At the Dagstuhl workshop, quite spontaneously, the group decided to go through just this exercise.  We considered both the future and the present of scholarly communication from the perspective of the psychology and the behavioral sciences.  We imagined what the future could be like, freed from the restrictions of our current publishing paradigm and skewed reward system.  We then matched that vision against the tools we have to see how close we are.  

I was fortunate enough to be in the Future group and the marvelous system we envisioned had information of all sorts flowing unfettered through the scholarly workflow.  At all stages, researchers interacted with the community, accessing expertise as it was needed to make their work better.  Automated tools removed unnecessary drudgery and processes enforced sound science.  We didn’t publish, we released!  While sitting on the beach of course.  What did we publish?  Research objects of all shapes and sizes:  data, code, workflows, narrative. 

And the future was a forgiving place; when mistakes were made, they were corrected even after the study was completed.  Such mistakes weren’t a cause for alarm, but a celebration of  the self-correcting nature of science.  The one who reported the error was thanked;  the one who corrected it was applauded.  

Journals were there, but they competed for the scholar’s work, which resided in the Commons and was available to all, human and otherwise.  All the money that now went to locking up information went to making it free.  Editors acted as agents and journals sold their insight into important works and their tools for using content effectively, not the content itself.  Oh, and the journals paid scholars for their works;  not the other way around.  

Every now and then, participants in the workshop tried to bring us back to the present with buzz-kills like:  “what’s the incentive?”.  But such negativity was banished;  the future was a happy place.

Many noted that the happy future could be here right now;  indeed, it looked a lot like the open software community.  But I sadly shook my head;  the future isn’t here.  The tools really aren’t ready and neither is much of the behavioral community.  There still are no incentives, and those trying to make it in our current system have little choice but to perpetuate it.  Those of us in the open science community painted a rosy picture, but the practicing psychologists among us clearly thought our vision was science fiction.

But, perhaps not. The ensuring discussion made it clear that though the future may not be here yet, we transition a little more every day.  We don't know everything but we know some things.  

In fact, my contention is that that we know the basics of how something we are calling the Scholarly Commons should operate.  And I believe that we can now articulate clearly what is needed to get there, with practical recommendations on how communities at different stages can come along too.  I also suspect we can provide incentives commensurate with the effort required. 

I say this with a Mona Lisa smile;  I’m not going to tell you how because I’d like to hear what you have to say.  I’d like to know if all of those working in this area have started to coalesce around a shared vision and the means to achieve it.  

And thanks to an award from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to FORCE11, we can do just that.  We will be engaging the FORCE11 community and our allies around the world to articulate their visions for the Scholarly Commons.  What principles, best practices, standards should govern the flow of scholarly objects across the digital ecosystem?  

If we truly share a vision and believe we have the means to get there, we will be able to collate and organize the necessary materials to serve as a blueprint for any community that is ready for change. My personal goal is to empower every researcher and scholar across disciplines who wakes up one morning and says “it doesn’t have to be like this-there’s a better way”.  Not just with high level goals like the FORCE11 Manifesto, but with concrete steps to take and appropriate tools to back them up.

The future truly is a happy place and I hope you will join us in bringing us there.


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