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Digitizing the Coin of the Realm

Electronic publication has transformed the culture of scientific communication

Francis L. Macrina

Scientific Currency

2011-09EthicsMacrinaFB.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageOver the past two decades, computing has transformed scientific publication, a process so central to the research enterprise that it is often called the “coin of the realm.” Sociologist Robert K. Merton is credited with introducing that phrase in the context of science. As he explained in his 1968 article, “The Matthew Effect in Science,” Merton intended the “coin of the realm” to refer to recognition by one’s peers for one’s work. But over time, the phrase has become more broadly connected with the concept of authorship. Nuances aside, publishing one’s research results is a critical step in earning peer recognition.

It is also essential for the progress of science. The value of publishing scientific results has always been indisputable and it will remain so. But virtually every aspect of the process is, or soon will be, affected by the digital revolution. Generally, scientists have accepted these changes, assuming or hoping they were for the better. As the digital landscape continues to evolve, we need to think about and systematically examine the impact technology is having on the coin of the realm. This reflection should lead to engagement and action by the community of science—editors, publishers, scientific societies and scientists themselves—to ensure that the digital revolution has the maximum positive effect on the reporting of research. I hope that this essay will stimulate such thinking.

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