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The Impact of Electronic Publishing on the Academic Community

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Session 3: The content and quality of academic communication


Maurice Jacob

CERN/DSU, 1211 Geneva 23, Switzerland, Maurice.Jacob@CERN.CH

©Portland Press Ltd., 1997.
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Topics actually covered

The matter covered by the title of this session is very wide and diverse and it was deemed appropriate to focus the two hour discussion on one key issue rather than to attempt a general coverage. This key question is the survival or not of the present peer-review system based on editors and referees, which so far has applied to scientific publications.

Nobody challenges the fact that scientists have to be provided with some help or guidance in front of the flood of information flowing ever faster with the implementation of information technology. The purpose of the present peer-review system provided by journal publications is to eliminate contributions which are found to be wrong, to grant priority and therefore to contribute efficiently to the recognition looked for by the author(s), and also often to improve presentation and readability. The quality hierarchy which has established itself among different journals provides further prestige to some authors and quicker access to the most relevant new pieces of information for most readers. It is widely agreed that authors seek this type of recognition or quality value attached to their contributions, as provided when they are considered worth publishing in a particular journal. It is agreed that they will continue to do so even if their work can be widely distributed by themselves over the electronic network.

It is widely recognized that some peer review should continue to operate. It is, however, realized that the present system has to adapt to the new framework provided by the rapid development of information technology.

Libraries which are so hard pressed for funds and frightened by the exponential increase of the cost of periodicals are also looking forward to changes. The present system has met with a paper-volume and financial crisis. Electronic publishing will help in the former case and could help in the latter. Some scientists are eager to try new and cheaper ways of publishing.

It is clear that the many questions which should be addressed take different forms and have different relative importances in the various fields of academic endeavour. Once again, rather than trying to consider in parallel the question of peer review in different domains, it was deemed appropriate to first focus on one specific field and to approach the problem from different sides in that particular discipline.

Physics is here taken as a paradigm, with even some further emphasis on high-energy physics. This may appear to translate the limited competence of the session organizer but the attitude taken in selecting the short reviews which started the discussion is rather to be found in the fact that, with physics, we deal with a domain where an electronic archive is already much in use, where the community is computer-fluent and well equipped, where a preprint culture has developed for four decades already and where several letter journals, with emphasis on urgency for publication, have long been in use. Electronic publishing is therefore making a fast and highly visible entry into physics and many questions had to be addressed quickly, trying various approaches.

It was therefore considered that addressing such questions in an open way within physics could be of some general value. Physics might therefore show the academic world at large how to operate or how not to operate. Of course, physics represents only a relatively small part of the academic world and it is clear that wide-ranging solutions which may eventually prevail will borrow much from the biological sector, which is far more dominant on the publication scene.

Indeed the discussion made it clear that what applies to physics should not be readily generalized to biology or even chemistry, which both offer a much wider range of rather specialized sub-fields. In biology for instance, weekly publications such as Science are very good at making readers aware of what is new and exciting , with further information then looked for elsewhere. However, as the discussion showed, the present hottest problems in biology have more to do with the electronic databases which quickly emerge as research tools and as a way to certify contributions which often stand as publications when seeking credit and recognition. This question was discussed in other sessions of the workshop and this may justify, a posteriori, the emphasis on physics in this session.

Moreover, interesting developments in electronic publishing in other fields were also reported in Session 1 and throughout the discussion.

Organization of the session

The Los Alamos electronic archive, quickly covering an increasing part of physics, had already been presented by Paul Ginsparg in Session 1 of this volume. One may say that, in a large domain of physics, most of the papers to be accepted in journal publication already first find (or will soon first find) their way to the archive where they will be widely available through the Internet. The archive is already to a large extent replacing the traditional preprint distribution.

The session started with three presentations. Peter Landshoff approached the question of quality control from the point of view of existing letter journals which continue as such in their overall structure while adapting themselves to present information technologies in their using more and more electronic means throughout. Andy Cohen then considered the question from the point of view of a purely electronic journal which would use the archive as a source and also as a depository for the accepted and then properly 'flagged' and 'frozen' articles while not attempting to make them available separately and according to a uniform format, as traditional journals do. Finally, Jean Zinn-Justin discussed the question of an open refereeing system (using added comments) as opposed to the present one which is based upon confidential refereeing under the responsibility of editors. This new approach is often referred to as 'dynamical refereeing'. Yet it seems clear that one cannot do without organized editorial boards. One of the reasons is that most authors seek a value judgement and would be very unhappy if their contributions were not commented upon at all.

These introductory talks triggered a lively discussion during which the different vantage points of different academic fields came into the picture. Special comments had been prepared by Frank Laloƫ, who also spoke as chairman of the Action Committee for Publication of the European Physical Society, and from Hans Sens who presented the proposal, "A Blueprint for Electronic Publishing in Physics, which he had prepared in the framework of a specialized working group of the IUPAP (International Union for Pure and Applied Physics).

Some conclusions

From the various presentations one may venture some general conclusions. Traditional journals will make every effort to stay alive, often offering for free an electronic version in addition to the subscribed paper version They already use electronic input which, in some countries, compensates for known weaknesses of the postal system and which more generally provides an efficient way to handle the contributions from beginning to end. Costs of certain journals notwithstanding, the present system has proved its value at providing quality control and one should think carefully before changing to a different one.

But, in the long run, one sees an electronic archive covering all the contributions (at least in physics) and with different types of journals developing as different products based on the archive. A metaphor could be offered by the many financial products which are developed from the material in the stock exchange.

Each journal could have a different emphasis. Some could specialized on important new ideas and results, as present letter journals do, other could provide reviews of budding fields as some review journals do, another could offer selections of articles for general reference value. Each could cater for a particular need and could appear either as a well-organized journals or as a Website. Electronic means will offer precious and easy links which are not so practical with paper publications, making electronic publishing much more efficient and versatile than printing. There are, of course, obvious storage and distribution advantages.

In this new use of the electronic archive, traditional publishers will certainly play an active role. They have the capital, knowledge and means to develop new products. But there is also a role for newcomers. Computer-fluent scientists can come up with, and implement, ideas which publishers may well miss. The World Wide Web and the electronic archive indeed originated from the research community and not from specialized commercial enterprises. Open competition between traditional publishers and newcomers is probably needed to get away from the financial crisis associated with the traditional means of publication and should be encouraged.

One should encourage new journal experiments. The touchy point is that this may require a benevolent attitude by funding agencies. It should be stressed that these experiments must satisfy good-quality criteria. It is the key condition for success. Good channels will attract good contributions and become even better, provided that they are already seen as good. This is a well-known 'bootstrap' problem, the solution of which lies in the talent of the editors and the competent and dedicated work of the referees.

Access to the archive may become difficult because of the increasing traffic on the Internet and we indeed witnessed such a problem 'online' during the workshop. Mirror archives should be developed and we heard that this is actually the case for the Los Alamos archive. In the future, when several master archives in different fields exist, one may consider combined archives which would be tailored to the needs of a particular 'local' community. The formation of mirrors or tailored archives should be encouraged.

One is likely to see an evolution rather than a revolution. Physics offers at present interesting experiments, but one should watch what will happen in the case of biology.

©Portland Press Ltd., 1997.
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