Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why not submit to a journal?

We believe that the manuscript Samuli has written is a high quality scientific document that could already in its current form be submitted to a respectful scientific journal. One might then rightly wonder, why did Samuli decide to make his manuscript freely available (http://arxiv.org/abs/1309.2131) and open for discussion in this blog, instead of following the traditional route of submission, peer review, revisions, publication? In the following we try to clarify the reasons for the approach taken.

Our answer to the question is threefold.

Speed-up of delivering the information. Samuli's manuscript shows that the widely used Berger model does not describe the lipid headgroup behaviour properly, and that this probably has led to several wrong conclusions being made in the field of lipid bilayer research. This is extremely important information for the field. If the manuscript would be submitted to a journal, the information would be available for the audience only several months later. We believe that this time would be better spent trying to use the information than waiting for the wheels of the publishing machinery to turn. This brings us to our second point.

Speed-up of solving the actual problem. Samuli's manuscript spotlights old experimental data and shows that one of the currently widely used models does not reproduce these data. This information, while crucial, is only an intermediate step towards the real scientific progress, which in this case would be to find an atomistic force field that can correctly describe the headgroup behaviour. Once this goal has been achieved, the current manuscript will have only historical value. We believe that it is better for the scientific community that the manuscript is openly updated as the project progresses, instead of writing-submitting-reviewing-revising-publishing several manuscripts in order to correct possible errors and improve the previous work. Since the project is open for everybody and the manuscript can be openly addressed with critisism and suggestions, there is no need for peer-review process. Also all the files and information are shared such that the experts in the field can reproduce the results.

Experiment with the way we do science. Finally, along its main goal, this blog is also an experiment on new ways to progress scientific understanding. These new ways have only been made possible in the recent years by the modern networking tools which allows us to communicate, share ideas and data very rapidly indendently on the physical location. Indeed, we feel that the Gutenbergian concept of an article printed in a journal, although having served the scientific community well in the past centuries, is not how optimal scientific communications would look like if they were to be redesigned today. Rather, the communications would be closer to adding small contributions in a collaborative manner to an open base of information. In lack of a better metaphor, what we see could be shortly described as something like a Wikipedia for science, a tree of knowledge in which new contributions (text, raw data, source code, new open questions, connections between fields, ...) are being constantly added. This particular blog is of course still far from this futuristic view, however, we feel that it could be a small step to that direction. In fact, there are already promising examples of cases where this kind of open collaborative approach has been successful in solving complicated problems, most famous probably being the Polymath Project; for readers interested in these topics we can recommend the book Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science by Michael Nielsen.

As was done with the Polymath Project, also our plan is to eventually submit the final manuscript to a regular scientific journal. This is because the current citation (and thus funding) system in science still appreciates only articles published in peer-reviewed journals; other types of contributions, no matter how significant, are practically invisible to it. We hope, however, that the experiences from this blog will in their own part help bringing the scientific rewarding system from the good old times of the printing press to the internet age.

Markus Miettinen,
FU Berlin

Samuli Ollila,
Aalto University

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