David Black is Secretary General of the International Council for Science (ICSU) and Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of New South Wales, Australia. An advocate of Open Access for scientific data in his role at ICSU, Professor Black is a proponent of the initiatives of ICSU and ICSU-affiliate groups, such as the Committee on Freedom and Responsibility in the Conduct of Science (CFRS), the ICSU-World Data System (ICSU-WDS), the International Council for Scientific and Technical Information (ICSTI), the ICSU’s Strategic Coordinating Committee on Information and Data (SCCID), and the Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA). He has spoken and written about the future of scientific research and the benefits of Open Access for scientific data. Here we are delighted to have the opportunity to ask him a few questions about Open Access and his view, as a researcher and leader of an international science organization, of the future of data in science.
Q. You’ve spoken out recently about the uneasy relationship between “creators and curators” of scientific knowledge, and about the changes you see as necessary to the way scientific results are published. To start off, I wonder if you would say a few words about WHY you feel change is essential?
A. From an idealistic standpoint ICSU sees a commitment to open access to scientific research data as part of its mission to benefit society. ICSU has the goal of fostering international collaboration between scientists from all disciplines and to promoting the participation of all scientists, regardless of race, citizenship, language, political stance, or gender. I personally stand strongly behind this mission. Only with equal access to the same knowledge can we promote the same scientific standards the world over.
On a more pragmatic and personal level, next to the good results which can be published as an exciting story in a prestigious journal, many chemists also generate new molecules or structures which are not as exciting and are often never published at all. But we cannot foresee which data will be building blocks for the next big idea. I therefore believe that it is important to make all of the results of publicly-funded research available to all researchers. The current system which selects for “high-impact” research papers is not the most efficient one in terms of moving scientific knowledge forward as a whole.
I would like to emphasize that change is not only desirable, but coming no matter what we do, affecting creators and curators alike. The development of the internet has been so dramatic and is creating profoundly new structures. It has become so easy to collect and connect data. And because we have the data, we will use it and manipulate it. For that to happen in a productive way, we also have to set standards.
Q. How do you see the landscape of scientific communication changing?
A. In the future, I see the focus shifting from primary journals to data repositories. Ideally the standards for these repositories would be created and monitored by international scientific unions like the ICSU or its member unions. A focus on data repositories however does not mean that there is no place for communication on the interpretation of that data. I foresee a growth in secondary literature to provide researchers an alternative to sifting through an avalanche of primary data. In this system researchers would be able to access a much larger volume of research data and a more robust and focused secondary literature analyzing these findings. And the emphasis overall would be on the data itself.
Q. What about peer review? On the traditional model, scientific articles go through a time-consuming pre-publication review process and are evaluated by anonymous reviewers before they can be published. Do you think this system works?
A. Peer review as a tool of evaluation for research is flawed. The current system for evaluating the work of scholars within the Academy—for tenure, job applications, etc.—relies too heavily on an assessment of the quantity, rather than quality, of publications. Instead of relying on metrics, such as Impact Factor, to judge scientific work, reorganizing the peer review process and making it transparent would encourage assessment based on quality rather than quantity of work. If scientists could publish any data or results in a repository, but only those worthy of comment were the subject of peer review, the problem of overwork among reviewers would also be addressed. I am also an advocate of self-reviewing: if I choose to publish work that is inferior, I am the one who is advertising this to my peers. Authors, rather than publishers, are fully capable of taking responsibility for their work.
Q. Any last thoughts on where the creators and curators might find some common ground in this new landscape?
A. I do see a real opportunity for publishers of data-driven results and secondary literature. As the potential for profit shifts along with this focus, publishers will hopefully be motivated to join in on the new repository-style format. Overall, I see a lot of potential for creators and curators to collaborate and initiate change in the way scientific information is distributed. The ScienceOpen system is a good example of the kinds of experiments in new communication models which will begin to spring up. It draws on the expertise of the publishing industry but puts the researcher at the center of its network. I think we are just at the beginning.