Why revolutionizing the scholarly publication system can have more impact on curing cancer than any single research project, and why Google should do it.
Curing cancer is an attainable 21st century goal. So much so that private enterprise, including Google, is joining this worldwide effort. Attaining this goal can only be through scientific research, but a single laboratory breakthrough is likely insufficient to conquer cancer. Nevertheless, billions of taxpayer and private investment dollars are exchanged annually in hopes of accelerating such breakthoughs (e.g., the National Cancer Institute received $5.2 billion in funding this year).
Like all science, cancer-related basic and clinical studies rely on previously published scientific literature, which provide the foundation for their design and execution. The backbone of scientific research is reproducibility; the ability of a lab in San Diego to recreate the results a lab in Shanghai accomplished using the same protocols at any given time. Incidentally, cancer research depends heavily on the fidelity and efficiency of knowledge dissemination mechanisms.
Scientific communication is dominated by the scholarly journal publication system. Journal publishers have been managing and circulating scientific information for centuries; however, today this system is broken. Recent studies probing cancer-related research have found that only about 10% of published results could be reproduced. Imagine the resources being wasted to get, on average, one reproducible result from ten published protocols. Given that every new research project is designed based on previously published results, it suggests that most new cancer research are likely based on unfounded claims. At the heart of the problem is an untrustworthy scholarly publication system that permits questionable research to enter the public domain. For cancer research, this represents a Catch 22, whereas only reproducible studies based on previously published research can lead to positive breakthroughs, but the system increasingly publishes more irreproducible research.
So how can Google help cure cancer? Of course, pouring additional labor and treasure into basic and clinical research is one avenue. But there is more than one way to join the fight. Instead, Google can tackle the problem of scientific communication.
Revolutionizing the peer review process is simpler, more achievable in the short term, and incredibly less expensive. In effect, it is removing the cancer from cancer research. In fact, its reaches are well beyond just cancer, with implications in neurological and metabolic disorders, infectious and cardiovascular disease, as well as improving research in all the basic sciences. A 21st century problem needs a data-driven, information-age, social network-related 21st century solution.
This opinion article was written by Dr. Kamy Singer, founder of SPapers (www.spapers.com) and Dr. Geoffrey Feld, an advisor to SPapers.