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The Future of Science Lies in an Understanding of Our Past

By Cameron Neylon — Boyle’s Law in a Networked World

When we talk about scholarly communication, we are almost always talking of the future. If we do look to the past it is to a canonical work. We begin almost every discussion of the scholarly communications with the first edition of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, published in 1665, before proceeding to move past this and show that nothing (or everything) has changed. In this talk I argue that if we are to understand the origins of scholarly communication in the sciences we need to look past the object to the community and the values that defined it.

Boyles Law animated.gif
“Boyles Law animated” by NASA’s Glenn Research Center – http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/K-12/airplane/aboyle.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the writings of Robert Boyle, we find guidance on the proper modes of scientific conduct and communication that might appear in a graduate training book today, but which are rarely realised in practice. Data sharing, open criticism and open experimentation all form a core part of the program of natural philosophy promoted by Boyle. If those values were truly realised in the 1660s it was because the community was small, exclusive and homogenous.

Over the past 350 years those values were weakened and lost as scaling issues made them impractical. Do the internet and the web offer a solution to these problems? And if so, how can we develop communities and infrastructures that combine the best of the values of the early Royal Society with our more modern values of diversity, inclusion and equality?

The answers to these questions are neither simple nor obvious. Answering them may require a re-thinking of how we understand the economics and the incentives of scholarly communication. What is clear is that the answer will lie in part in how communities validate, discuss, and disseminate science.

For more, watch Cameron Neylon’s talk given originally forĀ theĀ DataONE Webinar Series: Scholarly Communication

Cameron Neylon is a biophysicist who has always worked in interdisciplinary areas and has become a dedicated advocate of open research practice and improved data management. He received his Ph.D. from the Australian National University in 1999 and joined PLOS (Public Library of Science) in 2012 as its Advocacy Director. Cameron currently plays a key role in shaping the organization’s organizing, educational and outreach activities. As a respected leader on changes in Scholarly Communications, he is involved in policy initiatives, technology development and implementation around the world.

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