How ‘Google Science’ could transform academic publishing (Wired UK)


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Google is allegedly working on a
free, open access platform for the research, collaboration and
publishing of peer-reviewed scientific journals.

At least, that is apparently what one individual wants us to
believe.

Wired.co.uk is in possession of a document, sent anonymously,
detailing how “Google Science” would bring together existing
services such as Google Docs, Google Plus, YouTube and more to
create a platform that challenges the paid-for model of scientific
publishing and provides academics with an opportunity to connect
with each other more efficiently. The document was allegedly given
to a handful of academics in Berlin this week by Google executives
— so says the email sent to this establishment and a number of
other sources.

A name appears in one of the screenshots purporting to exhibit
Google Science in action, and Wired.co.uk contacted that individual
to find out if the document is in fact false and mocked up.
(There’s also a smiley winky face somewhere in the presentation,
and a typo, so we were not totally sold…) Dieter K has since
responded to deny sending Wired.co.uk the document, but reveal that
the presentation belonged to a 2011 “Google Science project” he
prepared for “a couple of friends and acquaintances at
Google”. The document, is exactly the same — bar a date
change. 

A Google spokesperson is currently looking into the validity of
a burgeoning “Google Science” project, but so far has been unable
to find anything and has no comment. Dieter K believes the whole
thing is a prank being played on him. But the email and document
appear to have been sent to a great number of journalists and
industry players. And still, the origins of its sender, remain a
mystery.

It is of note, however, that Head of the Strategy Unit at
Research Councils UK Alexandra Saxon, told Wired.co.uk that
she has been hearing rumours about such a platform for the past six
months to a year. “There have been lots of rumours but nothing
substantiated yet. No one that I have been party to comments from
has had anything particularly disparaging to say, more waiting to
see what will come from it.”

Whether the email Wired.co.uk received was the doing of an
open-access proponent, a Google employee attempting to stir
trouble, an academic who was genuinely presented with the article
at a meeting, or a rebel without a cause — it does raise an
interesting debate that has been brewing for many years now.

“It is easy to imagine a drastically accelerated scientific
progress if we were to fundamentally improve the way science is
done on every level,” reads the presentation. “By fertilising all
fields of science we would pave the way for a myriad of great ideas
and new inventions (one would not get otherwise or too late).”

It continues by detailing the increasing interest in
collaborative, open-source models, such as Wikipedia, propelled
forward by the proliferation of the internet.

“The great anecdote of the printing press is that it immediately
led to pornographic novels but it took over a hundred years to get
to scientific journals. Imagine where science would be today if it
were not for this delay! … and are we today repeating a mistake
when it comes to the internet?”

The dramatics are well-founded. Scientific publishing has been
ripe for disruption since it was first put behind a pay-wall –
that’s a lot of tradition to break. Startups in this space are
already working to undo the domination of the paid journal mode,
with Figshare
most recently launching in the UK
to open up the sector.
Digital Science, part of Macmillan Publishers, has its own
technology hub where it helps startups, including Figshare, develop
software and apps for the scientific community. Some of the biggest
players in this space include the journal PLOS, which has published
close to 90,000 peer-reviewed open access papers. 

On top of this, the highly prestigious Nature Publishing Group
says that 38 percent of the research articles it publishes are now
open access. But while more and more governments are making open
access mandatory for publicly funded research — Research Council
UK launched a new funding procedure this year to help academics
fulfil the UK’s open access policy — Elsevier, one of the biggest
academic publishers in the world, made $3.2 billion in 2012 from
its more than 2,000 journals. As the alleged Google presentation
points out, in spite of this “99.9 percent of the work is done by
scientists”.

This is why Google, one individual wants us to believe, is best
placed to step into the breach to “tap into the possibilities of
the internet and unleash the power of collective action on
science”, basically by adapting its own tools and the things it’s
learnt along the way.

What would “Google Science” look like?

“Huge parts of the current system are harmful to the scientific
process and have to be replaced,” the presentation claims. So
Google would do so, naturally, with its own tools. The proposed
platform would integrate Google’s search algorithm to make
discovery far better, and increase collaboration between scientists
by integrating Google Plus. “After establishing a social network of
scientists, its collaborative power will produce the tools of the
future,” the document predicts.

“Google Science” would launch a number of journals, be
“self-organising” and yet have a team of “qualified reviewers”.

“99.9 percent of the work, including peer review would be done
by the scientific community,” the presentation says, before
paradoxically adding, “Human interaction rarely needed”.

For one leading industry source, this whole description
instantly raised a number of red flags.

“These platforms are only ten percent tools and technology, and
90 percent community,” they told Wired.co.uk. “You really need
someone to organise things. Have you ever tried to get support for
any of Google’s services? I tried and what a nightmare. I spent an
hour and a half on the phone. Having a community that is
self-governing doesn’t gel with my experience.”

The proposed service would be invite-only at first, and
contributing scientists would need to use real names so there could
be no anonymous comments or ratings. There is another rather
significant issue here. This contradicts Google’s July announcement
that Google Plus would finally be doing away with its real name policy for signups — this would surely
bring challenges to integrating the social networking side of
things the document talks about. However, Google Scholar obviously
uses real names. So it’s feasible, if Google did want to launch
such a service, there would be an added layer for anyone that wants
to join.

The inclusion of real names would be significant, because
besides the hypothetical platform’s peer review process, the impact
factor — used to evaluate a paper — would be created by
integrating comments, ratings (on things like whether the study is
reproducible, etc.) and Google Analytics.

The publishing community is, however, already rather familiar
with integrating innovative metrics.

Iain Hrynaszkiewicz, Head of Data and HSS Publishing, Open
Research at Nature Publishing Group says: “We provide quite a
sophisticated collection of article level metrics, from the number
of page views or downloads, to individual article level citations
from different sources. Altmetric.com pulls together all kinds of
online attention from articles — the number of tweets, blogs, or
Facebook mentions, for instance.”

On the addition of a comments section,
Timo Hannay, Managing Director of Digital Science — a
Macmillan Science and Education subsidiary that supports startups
in the scientific software space — notes that other
publishers have introduced similar mechanisms, with no real
impact.

“That’s not to say there isn’t a scientific conversation
online,” he adds. But aggregating these comments from across the
internet, he suggests, is where the value lies. The industry source
Wired.co.uk spoke with agrees that those conversations outside of
the academic sphere, are perhaps more important. “People post stuff
to Twitter, but they tend to want to keep these things
separate.”

Why would anyone switch to “Google Science”,
then?

Most major publishers have an open access arm of some sort, and
many integrate the aforementioned features already. So why would
anyone switch to a tech company, over an established academic
journal? Google’s reach, and its technology, are obviously
benefits. But Hannay suggests far more would be needed to persuade
100 percent of scientists away from the current model, and to
another one — be that one brought to us by Google or another
company entirely.

The problem, he says, is not that there are too few options to
publish in an open access format. It’s that most academics don’t
think about it too much. “Most [academics] don’t particularly care
about open access, in part because they are not incentivised to do
so. This is changing, but only slowly, and right now most still
care more about publishing in established, high-profile journals
and in gaining a lot of citations.”

“Perhaps the biggest problem for academics is the time and
effort involved in writing and publishing a paper, particularly the
peer review process. Academics don’t publish fewer papers because
they can’t afford to pay for publication.”

If Google, or another company, had a secret weapon to disrupt
the peer review process, now that would be worth getting excited
about.

“Peer review is the thing researchers complain about the most –
no one has come up with a way to do it significantly better so
far,” says Mark Hahnel, founder of Figshare. “This is something
they’ll have to overcome — can they improve what the current
models are? There’s pretty much nothing you can think of that’s not
been tried by someone at one time.”

Stuart Taylor, who heads up the Royal Society’s publishing
department, says “journal prestige comes from the rigour of the
peer review they carry out” and believes that Google would have to
“do something really radically different” to make an impact.

Hannay agrees, adding: “It doesn’t sound terribly unique
compared to what others have already tried, and what’s going on
elsewhere. But maybe Google can do a better job.

“Google doesn’t do this for a living, they currently do search
for a living… Can they come up with a new model for peer review,
with a smarter use of technology and social dynamics? No one has
completely cracked this problem yet but maybe Google can. It’s
certainly good for people to try.”

This seems to be the consensus from everyone Wired.co.uk spoke
to about the potential platform. That the approach is nothing new,
but propelled by Google’s technology it could be interesting. If
nothing else, it raises an important debate and important questions
on how best to push the open access movement forward.

How likely is it that Google penned this
presentation?

It’s almost certainly a hoax. Dieter K tells us he has had
nothing to do with the presentation since 2011/12 when he shared it
with friends to get feedback, then Google. But when he originally
published it, he did encourage people to change it, re-share it and
even remove his name — so whose hands it ended up in before the
mass email went out, is anybody’s guess.

In spite of all this, Google’s past activities in the space –
including with Google Scholar — also suggest it’s entirely likely
the company has an interest in open access publishing.

Back
in January of 2008
, the tech giant announced that it would
begin hosting terabytes of open-source scientific datasets at http://research.google.com,
for free. Google Research Datasets — or Palimpsest, the catchy
name it was initially known by — planned to make use of Google
algorithms to help others analyse the data, and commenting and
annotating options would be integrated. The system would actually
involve carting a 3TB drive array around the world so that anyone
who needs to upload vast amounts of data, can. Twelve months after
the announcement, however, the programme was publicly
shuttered.

There is also the Google Plus post published earlier this year
by Google Research engineer Kayur Patel, which described how he
and his fellow Googlers built an “interactive, collaborative
analytics tool by integrating Google Docs, Chrome, and IPython”.
Integrating IPython Notebook, a web-based, interactive environment
where you can combine all kinds of rich media along with text and
code, sounds an awful lot like the additional layer Google Science
would deliver to tie together all its platforms to create a new
one. It fits, that in his post Patel — who was working alongside
Corinna Cortes, Head of Google Research, NY on the project — says
the team had been working for a year “to understand how people
collaborate on data analysis and to build better tools to support
them”.

“There is zero setup, because all the computation happens in
Chrome. You can even quickly and easily package your analytics
pipeline into a GUI for folks that don’t want to program. In
effect, you can go from zero to analytics with little impedance,”
he writes.

If this were the early murmurings of a Google Science platform,
they would be very early. Patel goes on to say that it will be open
source and people can build their own platforms in Chrome.

“It’s worth noting, that not everything Google does is long
lived,” says Digital Science’s Hannay. “I wonder what level this
[Google Science] idea has reached in the organisation. To their
credit, Google encourages all sorts of wild ideas and most of them
don’t happen soon — or at all. Think of the Loon project, which
was first mooted many years before it launched.”

Given that Google’s Wi-Fi-broadcasting balloons, as fantastical as they
sounded eight years ago, have been airborne for some time for
testing purposes, if Google Research Datasets were the precursor to
Google Science, we’d be about on track to see something concrete
come to fruition.

Google has always been a proponent of an open access world –
Google Art Project, launched in 2011, sought to bring the world’s
most famous artworks online through partnerships with the likes of
the Tate in London, MoMa in New York and the Uffizi in Florence.
The alleged Google Science pitch Wired.co.uk is in possession of
refers to a remark made by Larry Page at the American Association for the
Advancement of Science conference in 2007, on just how much this
issue effects the sciences and scientific progress.  He said:
“We have to unlock the wealth of scientific knowledge and get it to
everyone. I don’t care what we do, but we need to do
something.”

Many, would agree with this. RCUK’s Saxon, says: “At the heart
of our policy is the aim to make all publicly funded research open
access. This will have an impact not only on the science/research
itself, but will also provide benefits to businesses that can more
quickly take advantage of cutting edge research, and also to
society which will be able to access the latest thinking.”

Could Google really be the entity to one day facilitate that
epic impact?

The Royal Society’s Stuart Taylor, who has overseen the launch
this year of Open Science, notes that while it “makes
perfect sense given where Google was going,”, a potential platform
would all depend on “how well received by the scientific community
it would be”, considering how journals have raised their reputation
over the years.

“They have the potential to definitely try. This is a time of
great flux. We are not simply tied to journals and traditional
articles now — there are pure data publications, people are
getting much more used to sharing their datasets; there are nano
publications, where it’s literally just facts rather than entire
studies.

“There is room for all sorts of new players. The proof will be
in what the scientific community make of it and how valuable they
find it. Things are introduced and not taken up. Google is
well-placed though.”

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13 August 2014 | 10:03 pm – Source: wired.co.uk

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