Science Directions

This month's launch of the Monitor's digital edition provides a good opportunity to take stock of how recent technological advances affect psychological science. Technologies such as email, mass storage, electronic publication, Internet surveys and social networking websites are ubiquitous these days, though none of these technologies were widely available just 30 years ago. In many ways, this sea change has revolutionized the way we conduct and disseminate research.

Internet surveys

Online surveys and questionnaires have almost completely replaced the paper-and-pencil measures on which we relied for most of the past century. It's easier than ever to reach large numbers of potential respondents, with professional-looking surveys.

This method of collecting data carries many advantages. It is fast, inexpensive and allows access to diverse populations. It is accompanied by new tools for structuring surveys and managing large datasets. In many ways, Internet survey technology has improved research in psychology.

Along with the advantages come significant disadvantages. Many potential participants receive a glut of survey requests. Some of those surveys are important, others are silly. Some are well-structured and polished, others are poorly assembled and confusing. As a result, people have become less responsive. It can be a struggle to achieve a response rate over 10 percent. Internet survey methodology is surely here to stay, and psychology must take some responsibility to address the new challenges it creates.

Digital publishing

Over the past century, we have relied on printed journals and books to communicate and archive research and scholarly activity. Through this system, institutional and individual subscriptions and advertising underwrote the costs of managing the review process and copyediting, typesetting, printing and mailing journals.

These days, many people prefer to read studies online or via email, where they are inexpensively and rapidly distributed. Scholarly publishing seems easier, cheaper and more accessible than ever before. As a result, many people are quick to dismiss the old economic model in favor of free access to studies online.

Yet few are taking a critical look at how online publishing may change a system that has been enormously productive for scientific scholarship. The value of scholarly publishing has not been its format, but rather the submission and review process. We depend on that process to make judgments of scientific merit and to engage the scholarly community in collectively advancing a discipline. Supporting change and evolution in that process can be good, but it should be done thoughtfully and in a way that enhances science.

Data sharing

As I noted in the April Monitor, data are also caught up in digital evolution. Our ability to generate data in vast quantities carries with it significant challenges in managing and archiving those data. Additionally, digital technology has made data sharing easier than ever, yet psychologists are among the most reluctant of scientists to share their data with others.

We often have good reason to be cautious in this regard, especially when it comes to protecting research participants. Excessive caution, however, may impede scientific progress. This is an issue that clearly demands greater scrutiny.

As I peruse the Monitor's digital edition, I'm reminded of the many advantages digital technology offers. We can access these pages from desktop computers and mobile devices. Embedded links get us quickly to related content, and it's easy to share that content with our far-flung colleagues. In many ways, digital technology offers a vastly improved platform for publications such as the Monitor.

The potential for advancing science, however, is still a work in progress.