Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Publishing Versus Posting: Nature Magazine Turns to a Conversational Content Model - UPDATED

O'Reilly Radar covers the recent shift of Nature magazine's publishing policies to enable access to scientific research and data prior to it being approved for final publication by the prestigious scientific journal. Pre-published content will appear on the ad-supported portal Nature Precedings, along with unpublished manuscripts, presentations, posters, white papers, technical papers, supplementary findings, and other scientific documents. Submissions are screened by Nature's professional curation team for relevance and quality, but are not subjected to peer review. The Precedings portal enables registrants to comment on posted materials and to upload their own materials for screening. While there is no promised path to any posted materials becoming an approved juried publication the implication is that exposure may help that process - as on the competitive PLoS ONE portal.

In truth PLoS ONE is a much more sophisticated offering overall, providing much easier digestion, notation and discussion of posted documents. Where Nature Precedings presents core content mostly in Word and PDF documents, PLoS ONE converts content into native HTML for easier online consumption and with dynamic footnote references, as well as the ability to order content in printed format. PLoS One also provides "chunked" content such as graphs and tables to help people zoom in on results more effectively. But still, in fairness to Nature the Precedings is an enormous step forward for a traditional scholarly publisher, one which, when combined with Nature's exciting main portal, is bound to make it a far more attractive online community.

The advent of the Precedings portal underscores the dwindling importance of final publication for scientific content in particular but also the increasing recognition amongst all publishers that traditional concepts of media need to adjust more rapidly to online publishing. Prior to a publication being finalized it becomes a magnet for social media, gaining audience and unique interactions that are difficult to find elsewhere - perfect for building portal traffic. Once it is declared "a publication," the reverse is true - it becomes far more important for the finalized content to travel into as many other contexts as possible to find new value. Once content is fixed in its attributes it becomes media, a commodity stripped of community and immediately in need of finding new communities and individuals to appreciate it.

This points out both the strength and the weakness of social media: it can build up loyal audiences, but unlike traditional media social media is not easily syndicated - you can't "clone" a community, whereas traditional media is all about effective cloning through syndication and mass distribution. In this sense one can see from this model where the transition from social media to traditional media is more than just waving an "approved" wand: one's whole business model for a publication has the potential of changing rapidly once it passes through that status change.

While it's still very early days for the Nature Precedings portal already it's attracted a good amount of content across a wide range of categories, holding out the promise that it will become a destination of choice for scientific researchers. But as promising and aggressive as this move is the Nature team still has catch-up work to do to get this portal up to PLoS ONE standards of usability and reusability. One hopes that in time the portal can become a more active gateway to peer review and not turn into a dumping ground for various papers and ideas. The promise is there for such development; here's hoping that such developments come sooner rather than later.

UPDATE - To clarify, the Nature Precedings portal allows content to be published by its members without the fees associated with PLoS ONE and in general content on PLoS ONE is meant to be at least on a potential track for juried approval as a publication. But still, PLoS ONE winds up having more features that make it a highly usable destination for collaboration, whilst Nature Precedings is more like a download center with some comments on the side. It would seem that the Precedings offering would benefit from some of the PLoS ONE usability and community features. Bear in mind also that some precedings posts are near-finished papers as well; the difference in business models should not detract from the wide range of content that's coming on so far. In truth it's so early in the life of Precedings it's probably too early to judge it too much one way or another what it's likely to hold based on limited postings to date.
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