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Science Tribune - Comments on article - March 1997


We welcome your comments on the article 'Scientific Publishing : Paper or Perish' by Atherton et al.

Here are extracts from the correspondence between the authors and the Science Tribune referee.

Is there a case for redundant publication to foster transdisciplinarity ?

Science Tribune referee : The content, style and presentation of a paper are adapted to a specific audience. No paper can be all things to all people. In view of the potentially enormous readership on the Internet and their differing interests in various aspects of one and the same subject, is there some justification for 'redundant publication' on the Net (giving different angles to the same information content )? Or will there be instead a tendency toward the formation of micro interest groups who communicate only among themselves. This is already the case of certain paper journals which survive because the readers are largely the authors themselves.

Authors : Redundant publication is not peculiar to the Internet, it exists in print journals as well, especially for review articles. Whether or not it is "justified" is independent of the media employed to disseminate the information. The Internet does make it easier to find multiple publications on the same topic with different emphases.

Your comments : editor@tribunes.com.

The importance of the information loss in the transition from paper to on line.

Science Tribune referee : A frequent reply from scientists asked to write an article for an e-journal runs something like this :' It is a 1984 George Orwell-type of world where history can be "continually rewritten" and where there is no permanence in the information'. The stability of 5 to 10 years mentioned by the authors for an URL is a very short time-span when considering the originality of ideas. It may be long enough for most (>95%) of present-day science where each publication is just another nano-step forward in the same direction. It is totally inadequate as regards the time taken for new ideas to germinate and to be accepted. Furthermore, many 'good' ideas existed long ago; only the modern tools needed to test them were missing. When e-publishing becomes the norm, who will scan the backlog of information one chances across when frequenting libraries? Will the scission post-year 2000 disk / pre-year 2000 paper give rise to a top-heavy scientific world cut-off from centuries of experience?

Authors : A similar problem exists with print media. 'The Origin of the Species' is over one hundred years old and is available on-line. Only the present and future scientists can decide what is important to reference. The 'ancient' texts that are considered important will be put up as need be by those who consider it relevant. A similar question could be asked about texts which predate the Gutenberg press. They were at a distinct disadvantage when competing with mass produced manuscripts. The "important" ones were eventually printed, or at least summarized in print. Many others were undoubtedly lost. How many libraries have collections which go back more than 50 years? How much of that 50 year old paper is in good condition? How does one access it if it is geographically remote? Historians constantly grapple with the problem of "missing texts". We view weblication as a solution to the problem, not a cause.

Stanley Prusiner almost single handedly demonstrated a new infectious agent which is contrary to every known 'law' of infection in less than 10 years. We submit that the same task could have been accomplished more efficiently in less time with the aid of weblication.

Your comments : editor@tribunes.com

Plagiarism and patenting with regard to on-line publishing.

Science Tribune referee: Many authors are very possessive about their ideas, which guarantee their reputation, and live in great fear of instant plunder on the Internet. They consider the slowness of paper publishing a certain safeguard. There is also the question of patents. Whereas in Europe one can patent only products, in the US one can patent ideas (e.g.,. treatment strategies). Scientists, even in universities, are judged not only on their publications but also patents. Time-intervals (periods of grace) between publishing and patenting are extremely important. How does e-publishing interfere with this important aspect of a scientist's reputation? Will there not be an even greater withholding of information than there is today?

Authors : Prudent scientists patent prior to publication, whether in print or on the Internet. Patent offices keep records of application dates, preventing disputes about priority. Plagiarism is both an abomination and a crime regardless of the method of distributing the purloined ideas. The difference is that plagiarized ideas which are weblicated are far more likely to be discovered by their original "owners". One of the functions of peer reviewed journals is to screen for plagiarism. Again, these problems are independent of the media employed for distribution.

Your comments : editor@tribunes.com.

The use of advertising to generate revenue for on-line publishing and its relationship to cultural differences. Can Europe preserve a cultural identity in on line scientific publication ?

Science Tribune referee : The authors compare e-publishing with TV rather than paper which seems to make good sense. Although there has been much uniformisation in the paper publishing world, TV culture is probably still quite different in Europe and in the US. Americans are accustomed to massive advertising on the TV. European intellectuals often only consider the channels with no ads worthy of their attention ! Europe is fighting the massive import of American culture even if, according to some, it is waging a losing battle. Will publishing on the Internet oblige the world to adopt an American (anglo-saxon) model as seen for publication of articles in science journals on paper ?

Authors : The world is not obliged to accept anything. We merely suggested that placing the brunt of distribution costs on corporate interests makes more information widely available. In contrast to television, it is relatively easy to screen out advertising on the WWW by turning the "auto load images" feature off.

Your comments : editor@tribunes.com.

The pros and cons of e-journals being run by academics on a volunteer basis.

Science Tribune referee : Revenue can come from advertising. However, academic institutions worldwide may not be prepared to absorb the cost of e-publishing. They still tolerate that their scientists should be journal editors (for the reputation) and referees (for the information and experience). However, many academic institutions in Europe are drastically cutting costs. Experienced scientists with a little time on their hands are being sent on early retirement; others are being told to concentrate their activities and produce hard results.

E-mail publishing should not depend on a quasi-volunteer business run by academics. This just displaces the problem of the vested commercial interests (which compete) to the vested interests of the academic institutions (which are often state run). The institutions with the maximum clout will probably form exactly the same kind of monopoly as the publishers. We need some independence in the system. Isn't the move toward e-publishing just the ideal opportunity to start afresh and form a whole set of small companies with full-time paid employees who can devote their time to offering the best service possible ? The Internet readership will decide which will survive.

The authors advance the argument of 'increased focus on content and scientific integrity' but it is doubtful whether academics/scientists are a more honest breed than other professions. In the present paper publishing system, the journal editor is a crucial independent third party, for example, in cases of fraud and cover-up. And a journal can always withdraw aegis but will the academic institution do so ?

Authors : Stanford University is already involved in e-publishing in a big way <http://highwire.stanford.edu/>, we hope other institutions will follow suit. Print publishing required an economy of scale. Big journals published many articles, generating large income from subscription fees. We propose an alternate model that would allow small, specialized journals to flourish. Jounals publishing less articles each year can get by with volunteer staff. Advertising fees or small page charges can easily offset the relatively low cost of Internet distribution. In contrast to small print journals, which tend towards obscurity, all e-journals are equally available to all.

We took pains to differentiate e-mail publishing from weblication in an e-journal. We are opposed to the former and in favor of the latter. Weblication in an e-journal offers all the same safeguards you require.

Your comments : editor@tribunes.com.