The publishing problem in science can be fixed with tech

Sharing of scientific discoveries in 2018 is still slow and expensive. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has constantly evolved and we can share text, images, and video faster than ever before. Why is it so hard for science publishing to evolve?

People who have grown up with the internet take it for granted that they can share their thoughts and ideas quickly by writing a post on Facebook or Medium. Their usual modus operandi is to post using their smartphones. And, of course, posting on these platforms is immediate and free. Because platforms such as Medium are aesthetically optimized for the user experience, the end product is easily accessible.

Science publishing is very different than blogging. We expect these articles to be peer-reviewed, proofread, and professionally copyedited. We expect them to be archived and indexed, and much more. While this naturally slows down the publishing process, there is still so much untapped potential provided we can overcome the historic barriers to publication.

One reason why publishing is slow and expensive is that a lot of effort is required to execute the process from submission to publishing. For example, submissions today are still mostly done by sending a Word file to the journal. These files are unsuitable for display in a browser and have no uniform structure, so a lot of manual converting is necessary. You can also imagine that reviewing and revising by sending and receiving Word files is cumbersome and far from the elegance that you can expect from tools such as Medium or Google Docs. Indexing services require the manuscripts submitted to publishers to have a very specific format and enforce strict rules. This increases the hours of work needed per manuscript and drives the article processing costs up.

Every Medium post has a consistent style and does not need manual processing, because the website allows authors of posts to write using an online editor. This creates intelligent boundaries and defaults in order to ensure that articles look streamlined. Unfortunately platforms such as Medium and Google Docs are not suitable for writing scientific manuscripts as these documents make use of a lot more features than a blogger would need. This is why implementing features such as powerful citation management, complex tables and equations is hard on the web.

In 2018, the internet has evolved enough to enable a science publishing revolution. New programming interfaces, layout APIs and new frameworks such as Draft.js now provide the toolset necessary to make publishing more efficient. While it is nice that it is finally feasible to build powerful scientific typewriters, it is very expensive and time-consuming to do so. Journals would have to invest a lot to independently build the framework for this or license it.

This is where smart contracts come in. Smart contracts are programs hosted on a blockchain such as Ethereum, which allow anybody to input data and then process this data in a decentralised way while still adhering to predefined boundaries. Anyone could build an open science publishing layer on the blockchain and allow someone else to use it, leading to a standardized structure between journals. One of the companies doing just this is ScienceMatters with their EUREKA platform.

In this process users who build infrastructure are incentivized to build open layers because smart contracts still allow these users to charge a small percentage of the money being channeled through the smart contract. This leads to another advantage of science publishing on the blockchain: the native integration of payments. Fewer fees and transparent transactions are another property of the blockchain that could lead to falling article processing fees.

2018 and the years to come are going to be transformative years for science publishing. The science publishing industry should adapt these new technologies and the opportunities presented fast.