For the last few centuries, the primary vehicle for communicating and documenting results in most disciplines has been the scientific journal article, which has maintained a strikingly consistent and stable form and structure over a period of more than a hundred years now; for example, despite the much-discussed shift of scientific journals to digital form, virtually any article appearing in one of these journals would be comfortably familiar (as a literary genre) to a scientist from 1900. E-science represents a significant change, or extension, to the conduct and practice of science; this article speculates about how the character of the scientific article is likely to change to support these changes in scholarly work. In addition to changes to the nature of scientific literature that facilitate the documentation and communication of e-science, it’s also important to recognize that active engagement of scientists with their literature has been, and continues to be, itself an integral and essential part of scholarly practice; in the cyberinfastructure environment, the nature of engagement with, and use of, the scientific literature is becoming more complex and diverse, and taking on novel dimensions. This changing use of the scientific literature will also cause shifts in its evolution, and in the practices of authorship, and I will speculate about those as well here.
A few general comments should be made at the outset. First, I recognize that it is dangerous to generalize across a multiplicity of scientific disciplines, each with their own specialized disciplinary norms and practices, and I realize that there are ample counterexamples or exceptions to the broad trends discussed here; but, at the same time, I do believe that it is possible to identify broad trends, and that there is value in analyzing them. Second, as with all discussions of cyberinfrastructure and e-science, many of the developments and issues are relevant to scholarly work spanning medicine, the biological and physical sciences, engineering, the social sciences, the humanities, and even the arts, as is suggested by the increasingly common use of the more inclusive term “e-research” rather than “e-science” in appropriate contexts. I have focused here on the sciences and engineering, but much of the discussion has broader relevance.
Finally, it’s crucial to recognize that the changes to the nature of scholarly communication and the scientific article are not being driven simply or solely by technological determinism as expressed through the move to e-science. There are broad social and political forces at work as well, independent of, but often finding common cause or at least compatibility with, e-science developments; in many cases, the transfigured economics and new capabilities of global high-performance networking and other information technologies are, for the first time, making it possible for fundamental shifts in the practices and structures of scholarly communication to occur, and thus setting the stage for political demands that these new possibilities be realized. Because the same technical and economic drivers have fueled much of the commitment to e-science, these other exogenous factors that are also shaping the future of scholarly communication are often, at least in my view, overly identified with e-science itself. Notable and important examples include the movements towards open access to scientific literature; movements towards open access to underlying scientific data; demands (particularly in the face of some recent high-profile cases of scientific fraud and misconduct) for greater accountability and auditibility of science through structures and practices that facilitate the verification, reproducibility and re-analysis of scientific results; and efforts to improve the collective societal return on investment in scientific research through a recognition of the lasting value of much scientific data and the way that the investment it represents can be amplified by disclosure, curation and facilitation of reuse. Note that in the final area the investments include but go beyond the financial; consider the human costs of clinical trials, for example.