Open Source Science?

Let’s run a thought experiment. Imagine submitting a scientific paper for publication, then getting an email that reads something like this back:

Thank you for your submission to the Journal of Online Thinking and Futurism*. Your paper has been processed, but before we can proceed further with publication, please submit verfication that you have properly accessed the following cited papers:

… list of every cited work

Or what maybe it’s even more insidious. Maybe the letter reads like this:

Thank you for your submission to the Journal of Online Thinking and Futurism. Your paper has been processed and please note that this message is an attempt to collect a debt. According to our records, you have illegally obtained access to the following papers:

… list of every cited work they think you stole**

Please submit either:

  • Proof that you have legally obtained access to each of the papers cited above
  • Payment of $750 per article cited that you accessed illegally

Once this matter is cleared up, we will reevaluate your submission for publication consideration. If you do not respond within 30 days, this matter will be turned over to our legal department for prosecution under the United State Copyright law.

Two different articles on Sci-Hub have been making the rounds on social media this past week. Both of the above seem a bit fair fetched to me, but journal publishers like Elsevier are facing a literal existential crisis. If sites like Sci-Hub continue operating, what value do publishers provide to the market that lets them continue to operate? Maybe they don’t need to.

Thinking about these articles this morning over breakfast, the similarities between publishing a peer-reviewed paper and open-source software jumped out. Places like GitHub are filled with non-peer-reviewed crap code (just look at the 249 repos I have on GitHub, most of which shouldn’t be used at all), but the main projects are peer-reviewed, if not not in the traditional way.

Open-source software that is useful and used ends up with a peer review by folks who use and contribute to it. My thoughts this morning turned to ways that a distributed, open model like open-source software could be used to validate scientific papers. I have no idea if it could, but it’s an interesting thing to ponder.

*Note, the Journal of Online Thinking and Futurism is meant to be a joke. If I find it really exists once I go back online, well, the joke’s on me.