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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Interview with Timo Hannay

John Dupuis, Interview with Timo Hannay, Head of Web Publishing, Nature Publishing Group, Confessions of a Science Librarian, July 3, 2007.  Excerpt:

Welcome to the most recent installment in my occasional series of interviews with people in the scitech world. This time around the subject is Timo Hannay, Head of Web Publishing at Nature Publishing Group....

Q4. And speaking of Web 2.0, peer review is a core value in science. There's a lot of experimentation going on out there with alternatives to peer review, even Nature has stuck it's toe into the water. Where do you think this is headed -- no big deal or long-awaited revolution?

My personal view is that peer review is headed for a revolution at some point....

I basically buy the "wisdom of crowds" argument: there are plenty of examples of the web causing new, open and collaborative approaches to replace traditional, closed and proprietary ones -- from open-source software to Wikipedia. You donít always get a better result to begin with, which is why skeptics find it easy to be dismissive (as they were with both open-source software and Wikipedia in the early days). But as they evolve, and particularly as more people join in, they get better until the results match or even exceed the traditional approaches, often at much lower cost....

I also believe that the web is particularly well suited to a "publish then filter" approach rather than the traditional "filter then publish" approach that was required when publishing was necessarily a physical-world process....

Iím convinced enough to know that we ought to be pushing the boundaries, because peer review is completely central to what we do, and if thereís a better way to do it then we ought to be the ones to find it. But at least in science, no one has found it yet....

Q7. How about journal publishing itself? In 5 or 10 years will we be able to recognize whatever it is that journals have evolved into? Is the very nature of scientific publishing headed for some sort of transformation?

I think the concept of the scientific "paper" will remain intact (even if that name will seem increasingly anachronistic). Thereís real value in this unit of publication, which tells a story by explaining how something previously unknown has become know through a particular set of experiments. But beyond that, thereís a lot of potential for change. Smaller units of discovery will be published -- whether through blogs or databases or whatever -- because the barriers to publishing them are now so low. This, in turn, will create the need for new services to find and collate this information, preferably in a personalized way, and new measures of scientific impact that take into account such contributions, which will be much smaller and more numerous than published papers.

Journals will become better linked, easier to search, and more dynamic. Many databases will take more seriously the need for curation, peer review, citability and archiving. In this way, journals and databases will be harder and harder to tell apart, and I think the distinction between them will ultimately become meaningless....

Q9. Who do you think your biggest competitor is? Open Access journals, other society or commercial publishers or even just the notion that everything is available for free on the web?

None of the above. ;-) To be honest, I donít spend much time thinking about any of those. Open access will come about mainly through funder-mandated self-archiving, not author- or sponsor-funded journals. Of course we compete with other established publishers too, but they are a relatively known quantity. Your point about everything being free is related to an issue that I think is critical for publishers of all stripes: how to create viable business models that donít involve charging for content (whether readers or authors). Thatís not because I believe itís necessarily going to become impossible to do charge readers, but it wonít always be the optimal (or even a viable) business model, especially for collaborative online services, so we need other options. In short, we need to get much better at monetizing traffic.

But to answer your question, I think our biggest competitor is the unknown grad student in his (or her) dorm room hatching a plan to turn scientific communication upside down in the same way that Napster, Google and Wikipedia disrupted other industries....

Q10. Nature Precedings almost seems like the boldest of Nature's recent web offerings, nudging the larger scientific community into the same direction as, say, the physicists. What was the rationale behind introducing the service, and what do you see as it's place in the Nature suite of web products?

The basic rationale is that itís in the interests of science for researchers to share their findings with each other as early and openly as possible. As you say, this already happens in physics through arXiv.org (and Paul Ginsparg, who runs that service, has very kindly offered his advice as weíve been setting up Nature Precedings).

There are all sorts of theories about why it doesnít happen so much in biology and other fields, but we thought the time was right to try and kick-start it. For one thing, there seems to be an increasing acceptance and understanding of the power and value of the web in enabling open collaboration....

We were also able to get public support from some outstanding partners: the British Library, the European Bioinformatics Institute, Science Commons, and the Wellcome Trust (with more to come, I anticipate). This is key because the barriers to adoption are much more social than technical, and no one organisation has the right mix of skills and influence to pull this off on its own.

For the same reason, weíre also reaching out to other publishers. I expect a few of them will be cautious at first, but many of them clearly appreciate what weíre doing, which is about complementing the journal system, not competing with it, and about building an open federated system, not a closed proprietary one. For our own part, Nature Precedings helps us to engage with scientists at an earlier stage of the research process, which supports our traditional journal activities.

Also, by moving early we hope to be among the first to work out how best to make this kind of service economically self-sustaining. Weíve already made clear that that wonít involve charging for access -- and weíre working with some of our partners to set up open mirror sites to guarantee that....