Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Lebenswissen­schaftliche Fakultät - Institut für Psychologie

Using the Internet as a Conceptional Tool for Scientists

Taken from a previous version of the upcoming paper "How the Internet is Changing the Implementation of Traditional Research Methods, People's Daily Lives, and the Way in Which Developmental Scientists Conduct Research" by Denissen, Neumann, & Van Zalk.

Besides generating data, the Internet can also be used as a methodological tool to facilitate the generation of new ideas, the collaborative writing up of research findings, or the innovative publication of papers. As basic as this may sound, it opens up avenues that have the potential to revolutionize the way science is being conducted. To illustrate this basic idea, it seems useful to evaluate possible links between doing research an three extremely successful Internet sites: Wikipedia, Google and Youtube.

As is well known, Wikipedia offers online access to a shared body of knowledge that can be edited by nearly everyone. Such a centralized system (there is one single version for everyone) combined with decentralized access (everyone can edit the content) offers a promising way to do research. For example, literature reviews or research ideas could be set up as a Wiki (a website content management system that provides features like Wikipedia, which is only the most prominent example of a Wiki), with either open access or limited access to a selected group of researchers. This method has been most useful to generate content that is presumed to have universal applicability and summarizes agreed-upon knowledge (e.g., encyclopedias, textbooks). However, the concept is more difficult to implement when faced with controversial subjects and may even be discouraged when the focus is on generating highly innovative work that is often dependent on the output of creative individuals.

Google provides another example of web technology that has the potential to enrich the scientific enterprise. At its core, the basic principle behind Google is simple and intuitive: Frequently cited websites show up more prominently when searching for certain words. Page and Brin, the originators of the Google-algorithm PageRank™ developed it as an indicator of human interest and attention devoted to a source of information (of which a search engine is only one possible application). Already now, the scientific search engine Google Scholar is able to generate “classic” studies and the names of the most prominent scholars when searching for certain terms. In essence, this allows for an easy determination of the “impact” of a scientist (not surprisingly, most software programs to calculate a person's h-factor of scientific impact use Google's database) or empirical paper, see Li and Willet (2009) for further detail.

The final example of online sites that may provide a useful analogy to scientific publication are sites like YouTube, but also Flickr or even Twitter. These sites allow users to upload or link to and recommend content, which can then be rated by other users. Users can additionally flag content as “favorite” which results in a public listing of personal recommendations, allowing experts in a certain field to act as guides. It is also possible to flag content for certain undesirable characteristics, such as the use of explicit language or copyright infringement. In science, a similar site may be set up to allow researchers to upload manuscripts that are then rated by the broader community. Other researchers can then search for articles, flagging contents as lacking certain characteristics if necessary. In combination with the above mentioned algorithms for calculating reputation, a hierarchy in influence could be implemented to prevent abuse of the democratic and open-access idea.

The Internet, though not necessarily being the trigger for the ideas of open access (see and for the directory of open access journals), which are best summed up as the waiving of financial charge for access to scientific publications, and, in more radical and broader interpretation, the abolishment of so-called intellectual property and patents, is certainly paving the way for the realization of a free democratic world with equal opportunities and easier ways of conducting science in the name of progress and insight instead of vanity or financial interest. As of today, publishing houses become obsolete by charging for services that can increasingly be delivered by the scientific community itself via online technology. In an age of bits and bytes offering the possibility of unlimited multiplication and costless worldwide distribution, reasons not to do so become scarce in view of the societal function of science: generating knowledge and insight.

For example, we refer to the open source Berlin Diary Study, whose resulting datafiles are free to download and analyze for publication from

Each idea in itself may not amount to much changes in the scientific discourse, but together they may result in a revolution in the way research is conducted and published. Using an open source platform, researchers would upload papers that they have written. Such papers may include studies that have been developed as a result of knowledge generated in a Wiki, or may be an answer to a certain research question that has been singled out as especially relevant by the voting community (this would generate a competition for the best ideas). One day, this may even lead the much-criticized peer-review process to become obsolete, since the resulting product could be evaluated in terms of ratings by community members or the number of times it is cited. This latter index can be modified to account for the fact that some of those users have a higher reputation than others (using their h-index) or that newer publications are treated more preferentially.

Of course, there may be valid concerns regarding the quality of resulting products. To address such concerns, certain prominent members of the scientific community may be voted as acknowledged reviewers by their peers, or they may be identified by a Google-like algorithm when the paper has been submitted to the scientific portal (i.e., by identifying the authors of papers with a similar content, weighted by an index that holds the balance between number of citations that these papers have, the overall reputation of their authors, and the recency of the corresponding publication). The paper would then go through rigorous peer review with the reviewers framing their questions or concerns, which the author then has to address until a predefined number or portion of reviewers has agreed to let the result be published. Only then would a manuscript be published or allowed to carry a certain quality mark indicating it was peer reviewed (much like the “editor review” function on Wikipedia, for details see

Post-hoc editing of papers may sound like a scientific faux pas, but using a wiki-like format may actually be a feasible way to improve the quality of scientific products. Because the issue of intellectual authorship (and ownership) is a thorny one, users (if necessary, a reputation threshold can be established) may be allowed to either directly edit a text or provide suggestions that the author of the text can choose to address, either by changing the text itself or engaging in an online discussion. The advantage for authors to “open up” their studies in this regard would be to potentially improve the quality of their papers or to generate discussion that may boost the citation of their products and thus their own impact within the community. It would also allow researchers to see how other users (even members of the general public) are processing their scientific work. Of course, another way to do so is to allow other users to write a commentary to the article in question, much in the same way journals such as Behavioral and Brain Sciences already do.