Here's a vision of how science may work in the future.
Last month I scrambled to write a story about the evolution of swine flu for the New York Times. I talked to some of the top experts on the evolution of viruses who were, at that very moment, analyzing the genetic material in samples of the virus isolated around the world. One scientist, whom I reached at home, said, "Sure, I've got a little time. I'm just making some coffee while my computer crunches some swine flu. What's up?"
All of the scientists were completely open with me. They didn't wave me off because they had to wait until their results were published in a big journal. In fact, they were open with the whole world, posting all their results in real-time on a wiki. So everyone who wanted to peruse their analysis could see how it developed as more data emerged and as they used different methods to analyze it.
Now, a little over a month later, they're publishing their results in the journal Nature. Normally we press folks would get a press release about the paper a week before publication, and it would be under strict embargo till it appeared in the journal. This morning, however, I got a press release pointing me to the published paper. And while Nature normally requires you to subscribe to read a paper, the flu paper is published under a Creative Commons license, which means anyone can get it and use it under the license's terms.
While that's all very exciting, the paper itself is an anxiety-triggering read. The new swine flu (which the authors now call S-OIV) is only distantly related to other known swine flus, which means that there are a lot of flu viruses circulating around about which we know very little. And, as I mentioned in my article, it had already entered the human population several months before it came to light earlier this spring. Be sure to check out figure 1 (I'm inserting it below from the wiki--thanks, Creative Commons!), which shows how lots of bird, swine, and human season flu viruses mixed together to produce the new beast. The authors warn that the pattern of evolution they see is the sort of pattern the big flu pandemics followed when they emerged in the past.
With this sort of urgent situation at hand, the patient process of old-fashioned science publishing may have to be upgraded.