A recent article in Slate discusses the idea of using GitHub as a new model for publishing scientific and academic research, with the goal of making it more far-reaching and more relevant. One of the many benefits of the new GitHub-like model is a more comprehensive way of showing work, making it easier to include different forms of documentation (code, data from experiments, lab notes, etc).
The internet has profoundly affected every aspect of our lives—how we shop, how we bank, how we get our news, how we learn to samba.
One striking exception to this pattern is the way that academic scientists report the results of new research. As they have for centuries, scientists continue to write papers that summarize the results of their work and then submit them to scholarly journals for potential publication. Readers of these journals, for the most part, are other working scientists. The more prestigious the journal is, the better that is for the scientist’s career advancement prospects. The paper serves as the official and complete account of a given research effort, which researchers note in their curricula vitae as their chief credentials for advancement. No papers, no employment. Communicating the results of scientific studies remains rooted in printing presses and elegant typography.
This is a shame because the academic paper has some inherent limitations—chief among them that it can provide only a summary of a given research project. Even an outstanding paper cannot provide direct access to all of the research data collected or to the record of discussions among scientists that is reflected in lab notes. These windows into the messy and halting process of science, which can be extremely valuable learning objects, are not yet part of the official record of a research study.
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