Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Scientific Paper in the Age of Twitter

Walter Benjamin and Biz Stone
The FASEB Journal / 2009 / 23 / 7 / 2015-2018
Biz Stone: (dryly) In the middle of what?

For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century. It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for 'letters to the editor.' And today... at any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.

Maureen Dowd: If you were out with a girl and she started twittering about it in the middle, would that be a deal-breaker or a turn-on?
Maureen Dowd: Why did you think the answer to e-mail was a new kind of e-mail?
Biz Stone: With Twitter, it’s as easy to unfollow as it is to follow.
—The New York Times, 2009 (1)
—Walter Benjamin, 1931 (2)
All registered users are able to add Notes, Comments, and Ratings to any article...Highlight the text to be annotated, and then click the 'Add a note to the text' link in the right-hand navigation menu of the article ...Notes can be started at any point within the text, but for ease of reading we ask that you do not begin Notes in the middle of words.
—Public Library of Science, 2009 (3)


It’s reassuring to read that our colleagues at The Public Library of Science have remained true to the integrity of the word, if not the sentence or thought. PLoS One has raised this banner for verbal integrity in a cheery commercial entitled "PLoS Journals Sandbox: A Place to Learn and Play (3) ." The new format, which permits instant interruption of on-line, formal scientific papers, is certainly in keeping with the temper of our time. Were this to have been the practice in old-fashioned print libraries, many of our journals would by now resemble kitty litter.

In the Age of Twitter we’ve become accustomed to bell-tones and roving thumbs in every venue of human life. We call it social networking when we summon up Facebook, YouTube, or MySpace—and it’s no longer limited to teenagers. Twitter and the other social networks have been used by nearly one in five of online adults ages 25 to 34 (4) . Nowadays, in the plenary sessions of national scientific meetings, one sees heads bowed in homage to the Holy Book of Face or tweeting to Twitter in fewer than 140 characters of text.

Biz Stone, the founder of Twitter, explains:

Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing? (5)

And as for science: what are we doing? Today, on screens large and small, every online scientific paper is just a cursor stroke away. That makes it possible, as Benjamin predicted, for any reader to turn into a writer. No surprise, then, that PLoS and other new venture journals encourage us to adorn the digital text with notes and comments, blogs and tweets. [snip] Right on to the Public Library of Science! How fitting it is that PLoS, the youngest kid on the block of reputable science journals, is out to compete in the sandbox of ideas (3) .


It’s no secret that scientific journals have been losing readers of their printed versions to the greater audience on the web. For many scientific journals, the number of "hits" they receive daily online is a factor or two greater than their monthly print circulation. [snip]The printed word still retains a good chunk of older devotees, but even these are as likely as their younger colleagues to prefer electronic to printed copies of their favorite journals (8) . [snip]

This sea change in the way that information is handled and supported has worried many and frightened a few (9) . We might recall that scientific journals as we know them are relatively recent arrivals on the scene and have moved along paths trod by the general culture. [snip]. Science and publishing became professionalized at the dawn of the Enlightenment. The two oldest scientific journals on record are The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (London) and the Journal de Scavants (Paris), both founded in 1665. Originally filled with material of general interest for fellow citizens of "the republic of letters," they soon morphed into publications that reported the most rigorous science of the day (10) . [snip]


The mold was struck for the modern scientific paper between the two world wars. [snip] .Today the acronymic IMRaD formula (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) is now required by all reputable journals, including this one. But there’s always been wiggle-room around the canonical IMRaD format; most journals are enlivened by letters to the editor, rebuttals, conference proceedings, abstracts of meetings, news reports, etc. Walter Benjamin’s description in 1931 of the marketplace of print still applies to the market in scientific ideas:

Today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character (13).

He would have loved texting and Twitter; I can imagine his pleasure at running his thumbs over the passing comments and pertinent grievances as he "follows" and "unfollows" as both author and reader

In this context, one can only imagine what the epochal Watson-Crick paper would look like these days on PLoS. Their 1953 paper was written as a "Letter to the Editor" in Nature and never underwent peer review. John Maddox, editor-in-chief at the time, later admitted that "the Crick and Watson paper could not have been refereed: its correctness is self-evident." That’s a matter of dispute, as we’ll see (14) . The Watson-Crick paper begins with:

We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest...
The ending of the paper is of course perhaps the best known in scientific prose:
It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.
But for many of us, the real action is in the acknowledgments at the end:
We are much indebted to Dr. Jerry Donohue for constant advice and criticism, especially on interatomic distances. We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr. M. H. F. Wilkins, Dr. R. E. Franklin and their co-workers at King’s College, London (15).
One need only to imagine what tweets, twoops, formal corrections, and comments might decorate these passages on PLoSOne today. Pauling, Chargaff, Avery, Meselson, Cairns, Donohue, Perutz, Franklin, and Wilkins would have had their say:
It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing FORMAL CORRECTION: BASE PAIRING A/T=G/C, ERWIN we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material. COMMENT: LIKE WHAT? CONSERVED? SEMI? MATT COMMENT: MORTAL OR IMMORTAL? CAIRNS
We are much indebted to Dr. Jerry Donohue for constant advice and criticism, especially on interatomic distances. FORMAL CORRECTION: SEZ YOU! I TOLD YOU ABOUT THE KETO TO ENOL TAUTOMERS. YOU KNEW SQUAT FROM THE CHEMISTRY! JERRY We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature FORMAL CORRECTION: I SHOWED YOU THEIR PICTURES, MAX of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr. M. H. F. Wilkins, Dr. R. E. Franklin FORMAL CORRECTION: YOU PEEKED, "DARK LADY" and their co-workers at King’s College, London COMMENT: OUR TWO FOLLOWING PAPERS ARE DATA, YOURS IS A LEAP, MAURY.

Walter Benjamin, (1895–1940) the quintessential European intellect and literary omnivore, would have loved having a COMMENTS and FORMAL CORRECTIONS option at his finger-tips. [snip]

More to the point: much of the Arcades Project prefigures the home page of a social network on the Web. Benjamin literally explores a network: the linked indoor shopping arcades of nineteenth century Paris, the Passages (16) . I imagine a Benjamin today, reincarnated as the perennial flaneur; who follows a path in the Arcade of Panoramas. He stops occasionally at one site or another site. The flaneur ambles (surfs) along a protected space (MySpace) in which bustling crowds are reflected in shiny Windows. He adjusts his cravat in a store-front mirror (Facebook), and when the bell-tone rings in his pocket, he takes out his timepiece (Blackberry). He looks past his mirror image (YouTube), to find two generations of followers (Twitter).

Were Benjamin to log on to Twitter, he’d have thousands of tweets on hand to send to generations of followers. [snip]In the century of the common man film was art without "aura" and accessible to all:
Magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman. The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web...Thus, for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment (2) .
I can see Benjamin now tweeting, now twoopsing, now blogging, now surfing, now scrolling. His thumbs move quickly over the tiny keys—the sandbox of images in sight. He tweets directly to Biz Jones and the other followers of WB (his nom-de-tweet), an upbeat quote from Paul Valery (1928). Valery and WB were sure that other great gadgets would soon supplant celluloid film:

Pretty good prediction, no? Isn’t that "simple movement of the hand" what the thumbs are doing these days on a Blackberry. The quote is also about twice the 140 characters that Biz Stone permits, but heck, WB could have split it in two.


It’s less than 140 characters. I’d bet that Benjamin would have been at home in our new world of texting and tweets, blogs and hand-helds. In the Age of Twitter, he’d be ready to play in the sandbox of ideas, and we wait for his FASEB Journal essay in "Milestones."

Source and Full Text (Open Access?)

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Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign (17) .

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