Over at Derivadow.com, Tom Scott offers some insights into some of the possible directions for journal sites that he's considering at Nature:

"[I]t seems to me that scientific publishers and the scientific community at large has yet to fully utilize the strengths of the Web. Content is distributed over http but what is distributed is still, in essence, a print journal over the Web. Little has changed since 1665 – the primary objects, the things a SMT publisher publishes remain the article, issue and journal... The power of the Web is its ability to share information via URIs and more specifically its ability to globally distribute a wide range of documents and media types (from text to video to raw data and software (as source code or as binaries)). The second and possibly more powerful aspect of the Web is its ability to allow people to recombine information, to make assertions and statements about things in the world and information on the Web. These assertions can create new knowledge and aid discoverability of information.


This is not to say that there shouldn’t be research articles and journals – both provide value – for example journals provides a useful point of aggregation and quality assurance to the author and reader. The article is an immutable summary of the researchers work at a given date and, of course, the paper remains the primary means of communication between scientists. However, the Web provides mechanisms to greatly enhance the article, to make it more discoverable and allow it to place it into a wider context. In addition to the published article STM publishers already publish supporting information in the form of ‘supplementary information’ unfortunately this is often little more than a PDF document. However, it is also not clear (to me at least) if the article is the right location for some of this material – it appears to me that a more useful approach is that of the ‘Research Object’ [pdf], semantically rich aggregations of resources, as proposed by the Force11 community. It seems to me that the notion of a Research Object as the primary published object is a powerful one. One that might make research more useful. "

Tom then proposes that the 'research object' would depart from conventional articles in that it would serve as a locus for a much richer network of information about the research, including the raw data and protocols behind it, links to contextual resources such as other journals or news sites as well as links to further resources from the authors and departments behind the research. There's a great deal here that I found myself nodding and agreeing with. Research content should indeed become increasingly porous and integrated with the rest of the web and that should include things like trackbacks and mining other sites through open APIs as well as more conventional methods like references and citations. Instead of being tacked on as an online adjunct to a print article, supplementary data should certainly become more structured so as to become a more immediate and valuable part of online usage. Where content like video forms a useful part of the context (as it would in showing setting of equipment or displaying aspects of an experiment and so on) it needs to be more closely integrated rather than being treated as a bolt-on. Last, each article should always have a hinterland behind it that points to author profiles, as a means of both increasing discoverability and establishing the credibility of an author. Tom goes on to argue that this would allow the creation of a graph that describes and maps out the interrelationships between research, people, organisations and their area of interest as a useful and socially engaged means of discovery:

"One of the significant benefits a journal brings to its readership is the role of curation. The editors of the journal selects and publishes the best research for their readers. On the Web there is no reason this role couldn’t be extended beyond the editor to the users and readers of a site. Different readers will have different motivations for doing so but providing a mechanism for those users to aggregate and annotate research objects provides a new and potentially powerful mechanism by which scientific discoveries could be surfaced. For example, a lecturer might curate a collection of papers for an undergraduate class on genomics, combining research objects with their own comments, video and links to other content across the web. This collection could then be shared and used more widely with other lecturers. Alternatively a research lab might curate a collection of papers relevant to their area of research but choose to keep it private... Providing a rich web of semantically linked resources in this way would allow for the development of a number of different metrics (in addition to Impact Factor)."

Tom then gives examples of additional metrics, which includes educational and societal impact. I think it's worth adding here that the current (impact) and proposed (usage) metrics around journals do seem to me to offer a rather stilted gauge of the 'interestingness' of content, particularly since they take no account of interaction with the content (blog discussions, trackbacks) or of the sentiment of the response to it; are the citations critical or positive?

The main thing that seems to me to need to be added to Tom's piece is that if the concept of an article should be re-evaluated, so should that of a journal. What often happens to the forms of old content media when they are transferred online is that they continue to exist in a notional form, although they have in practice been essentially hollowed out. An LP or CD makes an album a tangible or meaningful concept, whereas in iTunes, the album is increasingly irrelevant to how people consume music. Although journals have taken care to labouriously transfer aspects of the print user exprience online rather than creating a distinct online user experience (compare how organisations like the BBC or the Guardian discarded their offline models when creating their online presence to what most academic publishers have done), much the same applies here. When I speak to researchers I get an increasingly mixed picture wherein some are very well aware of the high impact journals in their discipline and follow them as any other researcher would have done for decades (with RSS and email alerts taking the place of library visits). Other researchers tend not to talk of journals at all, but describe themselves as being concerned with discovering article content through services like Google, Pubmed, Wikipedia (oh yes!) and arXiv. This group is increasingly 'post-journal' in their outlook; they may be aware of the benefits of the journal as a means of disseminating information (peer review, editorial, corrections, retractions and so on) but it's an increasingly distant part of their experience.

If the value of a journal as a container or brand is of diminishing value in the user experience, then it seems to me that new routes need to be opened up to allow the content to be accessed and explored in other ways. As I've probably said on far too many occasions already, it seems to me that ontologies (or taxonomies if we really have to) that allow economics researchers to find details on sovereign debt in the Eurozone or allow a medical researcher to lookup a particular type of disease as it applies to a particular demographic of patient is far more useful than the unordered list that is the journal volume and issue.