Dipterist extraordinaire David Yeates writes:
If accepted, a recently proposed amendment to the ICZN allows for electronic publication of taxonomic names…. [T]he logical implications of this proposal are many and far reaching. For example, this change may lead to further advances so that zoological taxonomy bypasses traditional journal publication entirely…
I agree with Yeates. Taxonomy will migrate from paper journals to online databases, and this will happen sooner rather than later. But I think it worth noting that this is reflective of a broader change in scientific communication already underway.
Scientific papers are fossils, relicts from the era when writing on paper was the only medium to reliably disseminate data and ideas. Now that we have other forms of transferring information, there isn’t any reason to continue packaging all scientific output into periodical two-dimensional prints. Especially not when much of it (e.g., simulations, data visualization) is particularly ill-suited to paper.
Here’s a not-very-risky prediction. Within the next decade, papers will be winnowed to something resembling press releases or commentaries. The experiments themselves- the data, methodological details, and statistical algorithms- will inhabit a network of databases. Users will be able to access original data, replicate statistical analyses, or add their own data or try novel sets of analyses. It will be a more flexible and transparent system.
We are already taking baby steps in that direction. Raw data and methods are increasingly presented as online supplements. Sequence data is already stored in GenBank. Online portals (like CIPRES) already allow for remote analyses. PLoS has been experimenting with open commenting and review systems. Once universal data standards are adopted and the infrastructure kinks that prevent greater integration are worked out, I imagine the migration will happen quickly.
A few hurdles to the post-paper world remain, however. Chief among these is the academic rewards system. Hiring and promotion decisions for scientists currently depend on the frequency and stature of traditional publications in a pathologically myopic way (leading to, among other perversities, the division of single studies into unnecessary series of smallest publishable units). Working scientists will have little incentive to contribute to emerging infrastructures until career metrics are reformed to better reflect other kinds of productivity such as data generation and creation of software and other tools.