Science beyond institutions?

For many years I worked with Open Access journals, helping them to improve scientific publishing. I came to the following conclusion: In its essence, scientific discovery is not made by a university or a publisher but by a network of individuals working together. The scientists in the lab, the journal editor, and the reviewers — all of them contribute to the hypothesis. In the end, a scientific manuscript gets published.

I’d like to explore a radical idea:

“What if we could exchange science without depending on universities and publishers?”

In 2011 I sat down to write my master's thesis. I was thrilled about researching a topic that genuinely interested me. And I enjoyed writing about my findings. However, I was frustrated by all the bureaucracy that comes with it. I had to pull together a minimum, arbitrary number of references and follow a specific citation style. It was a real struggle to bring my writing into the requested form. So much time and motivation got lost there.

“Does it have to be that complicated?”

I wasn't aware this intuitive question would lead me down a rabbit hole for over a decade.

What happened?

Procrastination. But it was productive, as it should set my career path. As a side-product of writing my master's thesis, an idea was born:

“What if I could just focus on what I want to write, and not think about how to present it?”

Within a few months, I launched a minimalistic writing platform at substance.io that enables exactly that. While it gained a fair bit of traction, mainly in the web developer community, it didn’t take off.

Instead, it got me a job. In March 2012, I moved to Washington, DC and started working at an early-stage startup. There, I implemented the first version of Prose, a minimalistic tool for managing website content, which should later power the Obamacare website. An exciting time, but it shouldn't last too long…

Shoreditch, London, around the end of that same year: I am having dinner with the CTO of a new modern Open Access Journal, founded to do things differently. We got in touch via Twitter as he had discovered Substance too. We used the opportunity to meet while I was visiting London. A couple of weeks later, I was excited to start working on a cool project with them. We were experimenting with new ways of how to present scientific publications. Lens, that’s how we named it in the end, was a success, and it soon got incorporated into their journal website.

For me, this should be the start of a long journey in an attempt to help modernize the process of scientific publishing.

“Does it have to be that complicated?”

I realized that my original question was a lot deeper than I thought. Scientific journals carry a lot of old baggage with them. Historically, they not only use their own publication styles but also come with their own cultures and research policies — all with biases and preferences. Together we worked hard to navigate this environment, building a modern digital publishing workflow.

Nonetheless, I realized that it might be impossible to unite all scientific communication using one interoperable framework. At least not as long as existing institutions — with conflicting agendas — are part of such an overarching solution. It will simply become too fragmented and unmaintainable.

When COVID hit in 2020, I had to change my career path. Leaving scientific publishing behind, I wanted to utilize what I learned there and put it in a different, more general context.

To me, the most general form of knowledge is experience. I wanted to design a digital medium that embraces the subjective nature of human perception rather than fighting it. It should invite every curious person to a cross-discipline discourse. It should work like a lightweight scientific journal but entirely run by people, not institutions.

These are the key pillars.

Ownership

I never really understood why scientific papers state multiple authors. A discovery undoubtedly is a result of a collaboration. But how can a report about that finding be written by a group of people? When ten people make a discovery, there are ten unique perspectives on that process. It’s a shame we lose this nuance by consolidating those views into one flawless paper and submitting it to the most prestigious journal.

Wouldn’t it be more honest (and objective?) to allow each scientist individually to write about their journey? Wouldn’t this reveal the true state of the research, including ambiguities, disagreements, and failed experiments?

To allow that, each scientist must own digital land where they can publish and refine their reports. Discussions with other scientists happen in the same space. No longer should you be limited to discuss your in-progress research in a closed environment.

I know this is not the reality of a scientist today. Even though you meet colleagues in your field at conferences, ultimately you are in competition. Competition over research funding and being the first to announce a breakthrough. In this environment, how can you be sure you are serving science itself rather than your reputation or the reputation of your institution?

Open Review

Peer review has become the de-facto standard in science for good reasons. But it has drawbacks. The process is slow, expensive to run, and intransparent. Who can really tell if the reviewers and authors don’t know themselves?

Why not open up this process? Imagine you can publish the first report of your findings and share it with colleagues. Every reader can comment, and thus help you to improve your research. The research paper will no longer be static. It evolves organically. It will be available to the world as soon as you hit publish. Then you can make updates and corrections as feedback comes in.

Curation

With self-published reports, we will run into the challenge of separating the signal from the noise.

What is needed is an organization layer on top of the author-owned publications. Let’s call them lists. Accredited curators use a simple framework to assess whether a publication should be listed or needs refinement. To request changes, they leave a comment, just like any other reader. Unlike a journal publication, a listing isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. If your work doesn’t fit on one list, you can submit it to a different one. Unlike a journal, a list doesn’t own any of your intellectual property. It’s a ‘playlist’ of relevant, high-quality work curated for you. Could this be a way to democratize the distribution of research?

Trust

Science (and society in general) has become rigid and formal because we want to counter bad actors. How to really counter bad actors? With trust. An environment of trust can’t be created by defining and enforcing more rules. Counter-intuitively it emerges when someone in a leading position unconditionally trusts the group they are leading. Government officials who think their citizens are fools will create legislation that treats them as such. Citizens sense this and lose trust in the government. Trust spreads top-down, not bottom-up.

What I’d like to see is the digital equivalent of that pub, where scientists and curious minds used to meet to nerd out about their research and existential questions. I believe that our professional and private lives are inseparable. Human exchange is a consequence of our natural curiosity. One that might get killed if we make science feel like filling out a tax form.

PS: I’m certainly missing a lot of things here and I’d love to start a conversation.

Published by Michael Aufreiter on Oct 6
Revised on Oct 12
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