Scientific publishing is wasteful. We spend much time perfecting irrelevant papers to get them through peer review. Meanwhile, important papers—that thousands of researchers will have to study—remain filled with errors or suffer from a suboptimal presentation. Surely, you have stumbled on an important paper and thought to yourself: this paper could use a couple of examples. Or maybe the important results are buried deep into irrelevant material because the authors did not know what was really significant when they wrote the paper. We patch the system by writing lecture notes and even textbooks, which are themselves obsolete soon after their publication.
We can do better:
- Research papers should be subject to bug reports and feature requests. We need a bugzilla for research papers. It would cost nearly nothing, but it would dramatically improve the important research papers. Moreover, young researchers could build up a reputation: finding and reporting bugs in the literature is sign of leadership.
- Research papers need versioning: the authors should revise their most important work, to fix bugs and improve the presentation. Important research papers should be perfected as much as possible. (Some open archives such as arXiv already have this function.)
- When the authors are unwilling or unable to improve their important papers, then someone should create a derivative paper. For example, a graduate student could take a classical research paper and rewrite it to fix bugs and improve the presentation. As a community, researchers should promote licensing which specifically allows this type of derivative work. Researchers should also publish documents that can be easily edited (LaTeX source code or Microsoft Word documents). Many small fixes do not warrant yet another (possibly irrelevant) research paper. We need to be able to go back and patch older work for everyone’s benefit.
Yes, I am effectively saying that we should consider research papers like Open Source software.
Credit: This blog post was motivated by an email exchange with Daniel Gayo Avello.
Update: Michael Nielsen sent me a point to his essay Micropublication and open source research.