21st century science publishing will be multilevel and multimedia

I have to call your attention to this article, Stalking the Fourth Domain in Metagenomic Data: Searching for, Discovering, and Interpreting Novel, Deep Branches in Marker Gene Phylogenetic Trees, just published in PLoS One. It’s cool in itself; it’s about the analysis of metagenomic data, which may have exposed a fourth major branch in the tree of life, beyond the bacteria, eukaryotes, and archaea…or it may have just exposed some very weird, highly derived viruses. This is work spawned from Craig Venter’s wonderfully fascinating work of just doing shotgun sequencing of sea water, processing all of the DNA from the crazy assortment of organisms present there, and sorting them out afterwards.

But something else that’s special about it is that the author, Jonathan Eisen, has bypassed his university’s press office and not written a formal press release at all. Instead, he has provided informal commentary on the paper on his own blog, which isn’t novel, except in its conscious effort to change the game (Eisen has also been important in open publishing, as in PLoS). This is awesome, and scientists ought to get a little nervous. It maintains the formality and structured writing of a standard peer-reviewed paper, which is good — we don’t want new media to violate the discipline of well-tested, successful formats. But it also adds another layer of effort to the work, in which the author breaks out from the conventional structure and talks about the work as he or she would in a seminar or in meeting with other scientists. A paper provides the data and major interpretations, but it’s this kind of conversational interaction that can let you see the bigger picture.

I say scientists might want to be a little bit nervous about this, because I can imagine a day when this kind of presentation becomes de rigueur for everything you publish, just as it’s now understood that you could give a talk on a paper. It’s a different skill set, too, and it’s going to require a different kind of talent to be able to address fellow scientists, the lay public, and science journalists. Those are important skills to have, and this kind of thing could end up making them better appreciated in the science community.

Are any of your grad students and post-docs blogging? You might want to think about getting them trained in this brave new world now, before it’s too late. And you might want to consider getting started yourself, if you aren’t already.