Timo Twin wanders along a beach looking slightly confused, then zigzags up a nearby hill. "Finally! I knew it was here somewhere," he says. Across a vast square the logo of his company, Nature, is emblazoned in big white letters on a red background.
Twin has arrived in his new realm, on an island in the online role-playing game Second Life. The name of the island is fitting: Second Nature. The avatar bears only a vague resemblance to the real-life Timo, a tall man in his late 30s with a slightly round, Harry Potter-like face. His real name is Timo Hannay, and he is something like the representative of the scientific journal Nature in the virtual world.
It's odd enough that companies like Nissan and Coca-Cola develop virtual offices in the game world. But Nature? For many it is the scientific publication par excellence, and has been so for more than 130 years. The publication was founded in 1869 with the active participation of such heroes of science history as Tyndall, Spencer and Huxley. Each of them would have been a candidate for the Nobel Prize if it had existed at the time.
Nature and its American competitor Science form the double peak of a Mt. Olympus for the world of science. Einstein, Roentgen and Crick published in Nature. Only those who are convinced that what they have to say is truly momentous dare submit their work. And even then only one in 12 manuscripts is accepted.
And now this bastion of academic high culture is developing a presence in a bustling game world? It's about as shocking as the news would be if the Queen of England were to announce that she was packing up and moving to Las Vegas.
Adventures in the Online Gaming World
Hannay is familiar with these kinds of objections, and he loves one-upping his grumbling critics. "The core business of Nature is not to produce a magazine," he says, "but to facilitate the exchange of ideas among scientists." More and more nowadays, that exchange happens to be taking place electronically.
Many print media outlets feel threatened by the Internet, but the problem is especially serious for publications like Nature. Following the debut of free libraries like the Public Library of Science on the Internet, researchers are no longer as dependent on publishers. Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman, for example, was awarded the Fields Medal -- something on the order of the Nobel Prize for mathematicians -- in 2006. His legendary paper, which proved the so-called Poincaré conjecture for the first time, would have been the perfect scoop for Nature. But instead of publishing his findings in the magazine, Perelman simply posted his work on the Web journal Arxiv.org.
Part of the reason for Hannay's adventures in online gaming worlds is to prevent Perelman's example from becoming the standard. As the head of the Web publishing department at Nature, Hannay's job is to catapult the venerable magazine into the Internet age.
Hannay's current team of 25 works in offices on the second floor of a renovated warehouse. Here, in an unassuming side street directly behind the massive arches of the King's Cross railway station in London, are the offices of the Nature Publishing Group, an umbrella brand that includes more than 30 professional journals.
Once an institution in Britain, Nature is now in German hands. It is owned by Holtzbrinck, a Stuttgart-based publishing company, which also owns Die Zeit, Der Tagesspiegel, a handful of regional newspapers, the Rowohlt publishing company and, since January, studiVZ, a Facebook clone for the German student market.
Stefan von Holtzbrinck, the company's CEO, is constantly inquiring about the progress of Hannay's online experiments. Indeed, Hannay's work goes a lot further than simply designing the publication's Web presence: He's also investigating what the future of scientific communication will look like.
"Would you like some coffee?" Hannay asks, as he sits down at his computer and directs his digital representative, Timo Twin, to the Magic Molecule Model Maker, which looks vaguely like a gumball machine. "Let me make some caffeine," says Timo Twin, and soon brightly colored atoms begin bursting onto the screen, combining to form a coffee molecule. As big as scaffolding, the molecule floats in cyberspace in front of the Timo avatar, three-dimensional and easily rotated. All it takes is a mouse click and the virtual machine starts spitting out other molecules: adrenaline, Viagra, aspirin -- just as requested.
"The Magic Molecule Model Maker sounds like a game," says Hannay. "But chemists use it a lot when they need a three-dimensional image that can be rotated for a presentation or a discussion."
The team also developed, for biologists, a virtual cell that can be entered and, for astronomers, an interactive map of the heavens. Of course, Nature also offers a podcast, but it's only the test run for a far more ambitious project. In the future, authors will be able to post the details of their lab procedures by video on the Internet.
Nature has also expanded the Google Earth virtual globe for its own purposes. Now those who wish to monitor the spread of bird flu around the globe, for example, can download a small module from the publication's Web site and, using an interactive time bar, recreate the spread of the disease.
Nature has experienced its share of hiccups in the development of its online presence. For a short time, it was possible for anyone to manipulate the Web site that hosts the magazine's press releases. As a result, a number of press releases were simply deleted in 2006.
A Revolution in Science
Hannay describes himself as a scientist. As a neurophysiologist, he studied the mechanisms of associative memories and even published some of the results of his own research in Nature. He now sees Web publishing as a sort of continuation of brain research, but using different tools. "I now deal with Internet connections instead of nerve cells, but the questions are the same: How does one create intellectual value through intuitive links?"
The best example of an associative approach is Connotea, a sort of intelligent collection of links Nature offers as a service. With a single mouse click, anyone who has found an interesting article on the Internet can store the link and the bibliographic information on the Connotea site. Connotea automatically refers the user to the link lists of people with similar interests and facilitates contact. The clever aspect of the service is that even if a reader were to store only articles by competing publications, he would still be virtually linked to Nature. Meanwhile, the publisher acquires information about readers' interests and earns revenue by running ads precisely tailored to individual readers' profiles of interests.
Nature is technologically a step ahead of other publishers in many respects. Hannay has no need for such pithy slogans as "online first," because Nature has been publishing its articles on the Internet for a long time. Nor does he have to expend his energies on tearing down walls to combine the online and print editorial staffs. Everything at Nature is already located in the same building, where the publication's offices encircle a large, floor-to-ceiling atrium.
Star Wars, Flickr and the Ig-Nobel Prize
Nevertheless, the employees in the Web division, with their hooded sweatshirts and tennis shoes, still seem slightly exotic. When Hannay is away on business, he sometimes leaves a stuffed bunny on his desk chair. A terrarium filled with giant African snails sits between programming books and Japanese trade literature.
And when Hannay and his team occasionally schedule meetings online in "Second Nature," some are represented by characters with green hair or a noticeable similarity to Star Wars figures. They discuss their projects in blogs, display photos of group karaoke nights on Flickr or use podcasts to chat about the satirical "Ig-Nobel Prize."
As banal as some of this may seem, these are steps in preparation for a revolution in the business of science. The credibility of Nature is based in large part on a complex peer review process, in which experts in specific fields evaluate manuscripts submitted to the magazine. And yet, despite this rigorous sifting process, scientific journals have been deceived by charlatans on occasion. Nature was taken in by Jan Hendrik Schön, a German physicist who freely made up his data, and South Korean clone counterfeiter Hwang Woo Suk managed to fool competing publication Science. Suk's fraud was only noticed when someone tipped off the magazine's editors in an e-mail.
Last year editors at Nature decided to try out an Internet-based review system called Open Peer Review, in which selected articles would be discussed and critiqued by readers on the Web prior to publication.
But participation was disappointing, with only five percent of authors taking part, and the test was temporarily discontinued last September. However, Hannay calls it an "experiment that will soon be continued in some form or other." Part of the reason the first attempt failed, says Hannay, is that researchers, fearful of having their ideas pirated, are loath to allow others to read their unpublished manuscripts.
So far, what is published on the Internet does not appear in the official Citation Index, which is as important to the career of a researcher as ratings are to a TV talk show host. The index specifies when scientists' articles are published and how often they are quoted.
To get around these hurdles, Hannay is searching for a method to allow informal contributions to be reliably documented in an Internet forum. "We could speed up research if scientists would no longer hold back their results, for fear of someone stealing their ideas," he says. "We want to flip it around. If a researcher had these fears, he could post a short, unexamined preliminary report on our site, thus claiming priority."
This highlights, once again, how the role of publications is changing. "The purpose of 'Nature Online' is to bring together new people and ideas," Hannay explains, "we provide, in a manner of speaking, the pub, the doorman and the bartender, but whether it will be a fun evening depends on the guests."
The digital pub, with its green-haired avatars and podcast chatter, may seem futuristic. But it is also strongly reminiscent of the generation of Nature's founders.
'Talk, Tobacco and Tipple'
At the time, more than a century ago, there was bitter competition among various young, often underfunded and short-lived scientific publications (Nature's current competitor Science almost went out of business several times and frequently changed ownership). But Nature had a decisive advantage. Its publisher, Alexander Macmillan, loved a good party. He would routinely invite the cleverest thinkers of his day to his house for what he called "Talk, Tobacco and Tipple." This principle also served as the basis for his magazine. Science, Macmillan reasoned, simply had to be fun.
The generation of people who founded Nature continued to meet for decades in London in a sort of offline community for meals, drink and talk. The group called itself the X Club because it accepted only one rule: that there would be no rules.
The magazine's first issue was equally unconventional. The lead story began with an exuberant ode to nature by the young poet Goethe.
Not even Hannay knows exactly where the current development is headed. This August he plans to hold a repeat of his Science Foo Camp, a weekend when researchers from around the world and from every possible field will get together to talk about their experiences. This year's meeting will take place on the grounds of search engine Google's headquarters in California. Foo is a term programmers use to leave all possibilities open -- not unlike the X in the X Club that predated Nature.
If he hadn't been dead for more than a century, the old Alexander Macmillan would certainly be attending the California conference. After his third glass of wine, perhaps he would have loudly recited a line from the Goethe aphorism that appeared in the first issue of Nature: "She is ever shaping new forms: what is, has never yet been; what has been, comes not again. Everything is new, and yet nought but the old."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan