Huffpost Science
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Olivier Dumon Headshot

How the Internet Changed Science Research and Academic Publishing, Creating the New Research Economy

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

On Jan. 1, a little-noticed, but important milestone in the history of the internet marks its 30th anniversary. It was on this date in 1983 that ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network -- the world's first operational packet switching network and the progenitor of what was to become the global Internet) officially switched to using Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP). While this may not be the best known advancement in the development of the Internet, it is arguably one of the most significant, since it was this change in protocol that established the course of the Internet that is inexorably interwoven throughout our business and personal lives today.

The Internet has impacted all industries in ways we could not have imagined three decades ago. But nowhere has that impact been felt more so than in science research and academic publishing, especially during last 15 years of transition from hard copy to electronic files and the more recent emergence of networked science.

Since the very early days of the printing press, science has been dependent upon the publishing industry to advance knowledge. When Galileo's Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche, intorno a due nuove scienze(The Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences) was published by the House of Elsevier in 1638, it challenged the widely held beliefs of that time about the origins of the universe. Such thinking was held to be bordering on heresy by the religious institutions of the day, but the availability of the written word that could be easily transported and made available for others to study, propelled enlightenment and knowledge.

Collaboration between researchers in different countries, of the kind we take for granted today, would have been unheard of even as late as WWII. But the decline of the Cold War saw laboratory walls melt away, as a global economy and the rise of the multinational corporation, increased competition and the need to access the best scientific talent in order to build modern economies and address problems that are now global in nature. More than 35 percent of all research papers published today document active international collaboration, a 40 percent increase from 15 years ago and double since 1990. China dominates in cross-border collaborations; Japan and the E.U. are second and third.

In the first decade of the nascent Internet, little impact outside of the (then) narrow computing community was felt, but in 1992 the first digital versions of research papers became available to the science community via The University Loicensing Project (TULIP), a cooperative effort between Elsevier and eight U.S. universities (Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Georgia Tech, University of California, University of Michigan, MIT, Virginia Tech, University of Washington). Now the publishing process no longer required a lengthy typesetting and production timeline to create a journal or paper -- content could be created in bytes and pixels and made available virtually.

Six years later (April 1998) the journal Computer Networks and ISDN Systems published a research paper by two computer scientists, Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, titled: "The anatomy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine." Their resulting Google search engine launched in September of that year and revolutionized the knowledge transfer process.

By 2000, digital versions of more than 11 million research articles and the first e-books became available and by the end of the first decade of the new century, international sales growth for digital academic content surpassed hard copy. More than 1.5 million research papers are currently generated by over 200 countries and e-marketing of such content through the use of social networks now is the norm.

A more significant advancement in the past five years has been the emergence of "networked science" -- the concept that scientific content cannot, and should not, exist in a vacuum. Articles by different authors are now linked to banks of data sets, reference books, videos, presentations and audio tracks. Scientists and engineers representing a wide variety of cross-disciplines can debate research findings in online forums, and society will ultimately benefit from the resulting scientific discourse that will open up limitless new avenues for search and discovery.

Today, it is estimated that we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day, much of which (90 percent) has been created in the last two years alone, according to IBM. The data comes from everywhere: satellites and sensors, social media, digital pictures and videos, transaction records, and cellphone GPS signals to name a few. This massive volume of information has given rise to the term Big Data and the basis of the New Research Economy as global spend for R&D reached $1 trillion in 2012, an increase of 45 percent since 2002.

As with any advancement, the assets provided by the Internet come with their own set of liabilities, and they are legion. Most notably are the increases in plagiarism, piracy of Intellectual Property, the debate over Open Access as well as how we manage and vet Big Data. Internet search engines can provide researchers with inexhaustible sources of information, but they cannot determine whether the content can be trusted. The peer review process which is at the very core of scientific publishing still works, and may never be more crucial than it is right now.

The emerging economies in China, India and Brazil, intensifying global competition as well as the need for the very best and most trusted scientific research to address the cross-border problems the world now faces, will continue to fuel the new research economy. The resulting mass of Big Data will grow exponentially. Science and the publishing industry will need each other even more so to help manage it.