I have been off the internet for three days.  This was at first a glorious relaxation, then a growing frustration as I realised that the world was sliding by me, and I was not only snowed into my hut, but likely to be quickly so out of date that when I emerged blinking into the virtual world once again, my friends would remark on the vital sequences of great debates that I had missed.

One of those great debates concerns the articles and reportage surrounding the free publication on the web of essays dedicated to the memory of Jim Gray, the Microsoft researcher lost at sea three years ago.  Gray’s argument, the Fourth Paradigm, concerned the way in which data intensive scientific discovery is altering the way in which science conducts itself.  Gray pointed to the nature of collaboration and data sharing as critical areas, and demonstrated in astronomy, very often a good exemplar, that getting all of the literature in the same places as all of the data, and making them interoperable through distributed computing you could create new findings and, in effect, ” a worldwide telescope” as the New York Times notes in the article referenced above.  Another good example might be in cell signalling, where Signalling Gateway has the same effect in a collaborative environment commissioned from Nature.  And neuroscience now throws up a number of examples.

Even in my enforced absence from the network, I have not read everything in this collection (much of which I would imperfectly understand anyway), but I would strongly recommend Clifford Lynch’s contribution.  He sees the research paper as a “window” on the research field, and points not just to evidential data , but also reference data collections (often computed upon as the stuff of research) and to data mining, with all of the power of inferencing and semantic search brought to bear to discover the things we knew, but did not know we knew.

There is a huge challenge here for STM  traditional publishing and for the information sciences alike.  Who in this new world takes the impresarial role of ensuring that all these elements are available, and not just for science and medicine, but also for the soft sciences and humanities, is critical for the survival in the medium to long term of the structures of public-private sector interaction in the research marketplace.  Yet all around us publishers and the “Open Access” lobby are locked in a footling debate about whether an article is Green or Gold (degrees of openness to those who have too much real work to do).

And the way in which that trivial pursuit is now conducted  was the subject of an excellent note by Phil Davis on the SSP Scholarly Kitchen blog.  Why, he asked on December 15, does the consultative process set up by the Office of Science and Technology Policy have to be dominated by people like Stevan Harnad (the self-appointed arch evangelist of OA), who alone has made 26% of the contributions to this forum online: in  the real world, at a public meeting, “these blowhards are given their time and asked politely to sit down.  We don’t tolerate these people very well because deep down we feel that they are disruptive of democratic discussion where diversity is valued over dominance”.

Quite so.  This is an important comment about democracy and the way we debate on the web: it also reminds us that the time is long overdue for us to get away from the sterile open access debate, which on both sides freezes the research communication process in aspic, and get back to exploring the fast moving world of knowledge discovery itself, which is where Jim Gray takes us.  Then we can begin to properly re-invent “publishing “, and it will need the brains and risk capital of the private sector as well as the needs of scientists and institutions to carry that off.

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