Where will the key ideas shaping the future of scientific publishing come from? We asked Michael Nielsen, author of the book Reinventing Discovery.

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Where will the key ideas shaping the future of scientific publishing come from? We asked Michael Nielsen, author of the book Reinventing Discovery, where he would look for new ideas about the future of scientific publishing. This was Michael’s reply.

It’s tempting to assume the key ideas will come from leading scientists, journal publishers, librarians, policy makers, and so on.

While these are all important groups, I don’t think they’re going to invent the key ideas behind the future of scientific publishing. That will be done primarily by two groups of outsiders: exceptionally creative user interface designers, and people who design group experiences.

Let me unpack both those statements.

The first important group is user interface designers. Ultimately, scientific journals are a user interface to humanity’s scientific knowledge, and people such as Henry Oldenburg, Johannes Gutenberg, and Aldus Manutius were all interface designers.

Now, many people working in science don’t understand the importance or difficulty of user interface design. It’s tempting to think it’s either about “making things pretty” or about “making things easy to use”. And, in fact, much work on interface design doesn’t go much deeper than those tasks. But the designers I’m talking about are doing something much deeper. They’re attempting to invent powerful new representations for knowledge, representations that will let us manipulate and comprehend knowledge in new ways.

Think, for example, of how the invention of user interface ideas such as the hyperlink and the search box have transformed how we relate to knowledge. Or take a look at some of Bret Victor’s beautiful designs for changing how we think about systems and mathematics. In a more playful vein, look at Marco ten Bosch’s gorgeous game Miegakure, which challenges people to learn to think in four spatial dimensions. Or consider the way programming languages such as Coq and Logo change the way people interface to mathematical knowledge.

The second group I named is people who design group experiences. In addition to being user interfaces to scientific knowledge, journals are also a medium for collective intelligence. The design of media for collective intelligence isn’t yet a widely recognized field. But there are many people doing amazing things in this area. Just as a random sample, not necessarily related to science, take a look at Ned Gulley’s work on the Mathworks programming competition. Or economist Robin Hanson on idea futures. Or even people such as the musician Bobby McFerrin, who understands crowd behaviour as well as anyone. Or Jane McGonigal and Elan Lee’s work on creating games based on “puzzles and challenges that no single person could solve on their own”. This broad vein of work is a key direction from which important new fundamental ideas will ultimately come.

Let me finish by identifying a questionable assumption implicit in the question “Where will the future of scientific publishing come from?” The assumption is that there will be a single future for scientific publishing, a kind of jazzed-up version of the scientific article, and it’s simply up to enterprising publishers to figure out what it is.

I believe that, if things go well, there will instead be a proliferation of media types. Some will be informal, cognitive media for people to think and carry out experiments with. Look, for example, at some of Peter Norvig’s ipython notebooks. Others will be collaborative environments for building up knowledge — look at Tim Gowers’s and Terry Tao’s use of blogs and wikis to solve mathematical problems collaboratively. And some will be recognizable descendants of the “paper of record” model common in journals today. So what I hope we’ll see is a much richer and more varied ecosystem, and one that continues to change and improve rapidly over many decades.


  • Michael Nielsen

    Michael Nielsen

    Michael Nielsen is a science writer and quantum physicist who helped pioneer quantum computing and the modern open science movement.