A Vision of the Future of Research

The following was posted as a comment on Tim Gowers's blog post "How might we get to a new model of mathematical publishing?"

Interesting post. I have proposed a very similar idea several months ago to a colleague, namely a cross between arXiv and a social networking site. I also suggested to get the idea rolling initially via a blog/journal publishing arXiv articles, peer-reviewed in the blog comments - for the sake of technical simplicity. So essentially what you've described.

Having experienced other social networks with a creativity streak - mostly in art like Deviantart - the danger of "gamification" or "score-hunting" does arise as many here have realized in advance. Then there is the issue of getting lost in the crowd unless the ranking algorithm is phenomenal - hardly ever. Any ranking system would reduce a person to a score, but how could the scoreless / no-reputation newbie researcher be noticed for something ingenious? People would just follow the big fish, because there would be way too many little fish tiring their eyes. (Just consider, we all follow Terence Tao's blog, but who follows ours?)

So I have got to the point where I discarded the above idea altogether (though I still am in a dilemma whether to create such a blog with a limited group of researchers inviting each other). Instead I asked myself, why are we doing research in the first place? Is it not to contribute to something greater than ourselves... the development of mathematics / science? Do we really need to be credited for our contributions? Does it have to be an ego game? How about a world of research where no-one cares about who did what? See where I'm getting at...? Wikipedia! Sure, there are wiki sites on math, but what if that's all research would become?

The above idea is a little naive in its brevity and humility. The actual website would have to be a little more sophisticated than a wiki, to account for measuring contributions and the relevance of those contributions (one will still need to put something on their resume to land a job). Possibly a thumbs up/down system per each wiki edit per user (stars don't work btw). If an edit gets too many downs, it would get removed. Let's just keep it simple. (No wiki discussion pages = battlefields either, they are soul-killing.) Then on one's personal profile, the contribution stats could be shown, exportable for resumes. So quantity vs. quality would be displayed analytically.

As far as the edits themselves, a user would have total freedom as on a wiki. Brief to longer edits ok. An edit would be highlighted as new for let's say 3 days, at which point the votes would decide if it remains included in the body of text. But if a person gets too many thumbs down on edits, they could be identified as potential spammers by the admins. The site should require a scan of one's master's degree and edits would be only permitted in that field of science, as verified by admins upon registration. (Thus no need for a weighted voting system, since users would be professionals by default, and a newbie's vote is potentially as accurate as others'.) The site could be peer-invitation only in its infancy, to ensure coherence of material through existing collaborative relationships. The first researchers invited should be prime representatives and authors of a field, so their writing would serve as the foundations of the website. We would always see where research is at by just scrolling to the end of an article. There would be no need to write intros to topics as we did in papers, since the info would all be there.

So to sum up the idea, research would become a coherent evolving online encyclopedia striving for absolute complete knowledge, just like it should have always been in real life in my opinion. Let's admit, the current journal system has always been just a substitute for the real thing, that we couldn't yet make happen without the technology... but now we can! What do you think? Worth a try?