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Winners and losers in the global research village
P. Ginsparg (LANL)
* Invited contribution for Conference held at UNESCO HQ, Paris, 19-23 Feb 1996, during session Scientist's View of Electronic Publishing and Issues Raised,
February 21st 1996.
I describe a set of automated archives for electronic communication of
research information that have been operational in many fields of physics, and
some related and unrelated disciplines, starting from 1991. These archives now
serve over 35,000 users worldwide from over 70 countries, and process more
than 70,000 electronic transactions per day. In some fields of physics,
they have already supplanted traditional research journals as conveyers of
both topical and archival research information. Many of the lessons learned
from these systems should carry over to other fields of scholarly publication,
i.e. those wherein authors are writing not for direct financial remuneration
in the form of royalties, but rather primarily to communicate information
(for the advancement of knowledge, with attendant benefits to their careers
and professional reputations). These archives have in addition proven equally
indispensible to researchers in less developed countries.
A major lesson we learn is that the current model of funding publishing
companies through research libraries (in turn funded by overhead on research
grants) is unlikely to survive in the electronic realm. It is premised on a
paper medium that was difficult to produce, difficult to distribute, difficult
to archive, and difficult to duplicate -- a medium that hence required numerous
local redistribution points in the form of research libraries. The electronic
medium shares none of these features and thus naturally facilitates largescale
disintermediation, with the resulting communication of research information
both more efficient and more cost-effective. A correctly configured fully
electronic scholarly journal can be operated at a fraction of the cost of a
conventional print journal, and could for example be fully supported by
author subsidy (page charges or related mechanism, as already paid to some
journals), ideally allowing for free network distribution and maximal
benefit both to authors and readers.
Another lesson is that authors are unlikely to accept "electronic clones"
of print journals (i.e. electronic versions identical in content,
functionality, methodology and appearance, to paper versions), whether
transmitted via CD-ROM or via the network. The electronic medium should not be
constrained by any former print incarnation and, in particular, easily
implemented quality appraisal mechanisms in the electronic realm will be
dramatically superior to the binary (i.e. one-time, all-or-nothing) procedure
employed by the print medium, which in turn frequently conveys inadequate
signal. Moreover, authors and their funding institutions will be empowered to
insist upon retaining the right to distribute electronic research documents and
attachments in the format produced by the authors. Authoring tools already
allow a highly sophisticated end-user format, including automatic network
linkages, and will continue to improve.
The essential question at this point is not *whether* the scientific
research literature will migrate to fully electronic dissemination, but
rather *how quickly* this transition will take place now that all of the
requisite tools are on-line. Secondary open questions include determining
the most effective means of cost recovery for the disseminators of this
information, what agencies will be responsible for insuring the long-term
archival integrity, indexing, and cross-compatibility for the various research
databases, and how peer review will be organized for those disciplines that
depend on the value-added it can in principle provide.
Finally, I describe some of the major improvements, enhancements in
functionality, and other expansions projected over the next few years
for the existing archives.
Electronic publishing in science has recently become the focus
of an increasing number of workshops and conferences,
typically including representatives from professional societies and
other scholarly publishing concerns, and members of the library community;
but only a small or vanishing participation from actual researchers.
This is ironic since the average scientist provides the lifeblood of
scientific publication on a daily basis as reader, author, and referee,
frequently as editor, and also as organizer of conferences, schools, and
workshops. Scientists consequently understand research publication from the
inside-out as few non-researchers ever could, and many have grown frustrated
at patronizing attempts to assure them that unthinking preservation of the
status quo is in their best interest.
It is clear that many traditional roles will be shifted by the electronic
medium, and new roles will emerge, though precisely which players will acquire
the competence to fill which roles, and when, remains to be determined.
In principle, the new electronic medium gives us the opportunity
to reconsider many aspects of our current research communication,
and researchers should take advantage of this opportunity to
map out the ideal research communication medium of the future.
It is crucial that the researchers, who play a privileged role in this as both
providers and consumers of the information, not only be heard but be
given the strongest voice.
In particular, we need to dislodge definitively the curiously prevalent notion
that the future electronic medium will strictly duplicate,
inadequacy for inadequacy, the current print medium.
2. Some History
Rather than relate here the full history of the "e-print archives"
and whatever has occurred since mid 1991, instead I will
concentrate only on some highlights that serve to illustrate the major lessons
learned to date, and suggest their implications for the future.
(For additional background information,
see my article
First Steps Towards Electronic Research Communication,
Computers in Physics, Vol.8, No.4, Jul/Aug 1994, p. 390, originally
adapted from a letter to Physics Today, June 1992.
For some of the more recent publicity, see Computers in Physics,
Vol.10, No.1, Jan/Feb 1996, p. 6; and Science, Vol.271, 9 Feb 1996,
The first database, hep-th (for High Energy Physics -- Theory),
was started in August of '91 and was intended for usage by
a small subcommunity of less than 200 physicists, then working on
a so-called "matrix model" approach to studying string theory and two
dimensional gravity. (Mermin [Reference Frame, Physics Today, Apr 1992, p.9]
later described the establishment of these electronic research archives
for string theorists as potentially "their greatest contribution to science.")
Within a few months, the original hep-th had quickly expanded in its scope
to over 1000 users, and after a few years had over 3800 users. More
significantly, there are numerous other physics databases now in operation
(see xxx physics e-print archives)
that currently serve over 35,000 researchers and typically process
more than 70,000 electronic transactions per day (i.e. as of 2/96; see the
for an overview of growth in WorldWideWeb usage alone at xxx.lanl.gov).
These systems are entirely automated (including submission process and
indexing of titles/authors/abstracts), and allow access via e-mail, anonymous
ftp, and the WorldWideWeb. The communication of research results occurs on
a dramatically accelerated timescale and much of the waste of the hardcopy
distribution scheme is eliminated. In addition,
researchers who might not ordinarily communicate with one another can quickly
set up a virtual meeting ground, and ultimately disband if things do not pan
out, all with infinitely greater ease and flexibility than is provided by
current publication media.
It is important to distinguish the form of communication facilitated by
these systems from that of usenet newsgroups or garden variety "bulletin board"
systems. In "e-print archives," researchers communicate exclusively
via research abstracts that describe material otherwise suitable for
conventional publication. This is a very formal mode of communication in which
each entry is archived and indexed for retrieval at arbitrarily later times;
Usenet newsgroups and bulletin boards, on the other hand, represent
an informal mode of communication, more akin to ordinary conversation, with
unindexed entries that typically disappear after a short time.
While the high energy physics community did have
a pre-existing hardcopy preprint habit that had already largely supplanted
journals as our primary communication medium, this is not a necessary initial
condition for acceptance of an electronic preprint archive,
as evidenced by recent growth into other areas of physics and mathematics, and
even to computation and linguistics.
The economics for all this remains favorable, with a gigabyte of hard disk
storage currently averaging under $500 (i.e. roughly 25,000 papers
including figures can be stored for an average of less than 2 cents apiece).
Finally, politically correct elements typically fret over leaving the third
world in the dust -- but the reality is that less developed countries are
already better off than they were before: researchers in eastern
Europe, South America, and the far East frequently report how lost they
would be without these electronic communication systems, and how they
can finally participate in the ongoing research loop.
It will always remain easier and less expensive to get a computer connected to
the internet than to build, stock, and maintain conventional libraries
-- the conventional journal system had always been much less fair to the
To summarize, to date we've learned:
3. Scholarly vs. Trade Publication
- The exponential increase in electronic networking usage has opened new
possibilities for formal and informal communication of research information.
- For some fields of physics, the on-line electronic archives immediately
became the primary means of communicating ongoing research information, with
conventional journals entirely supplanted in this role. Researchers will
voluntarily subscribe and make aggressive use of these systems which
will continue to grow rapidly. The current levels of technology and network
connectivity are adequate to support these systems. (Though we anticipate
the need for increases in transcontinental network carrying capacity to
catch up with the recent explosion in non-academic usage -- otherwise
scientific usage will require either priority routing on the shared
network or an independent network.)
- For some fields of physics, open (i.e. unrefereed) distribution of research
can work well and has advantages for researchers both in developed
and undeveloped countries.
Before continuing, we must distinguish at this point between two very
different types of publication, formerly grouped together only due to
accidental similarities in their modes of production and distribution.
Understanding this distinction is crucial to the future of scholarly publishing
(My comments here have been strongly influenced by e-mail discussions
with Stevan Harnad and correspondents, some of which are available at
ftp url. Other relevant discussions of electronic publishing issues by
Harnad, with further references, are available at
this http url
or equivalently at this ftp url).
In scholarly publication (a.k.a. "Esoteric Scholarly Publication"),
we are writing to communicate research information and to establish
our research reputations. We are not writing in order to make money in the form
of royalties based on the size of a paying readership. We have every
desire to see maximal distribution of our work (properly accredited of
course), and would fight any attempt to suppress that distribution.
In trade publication, on the other hand, authors write specifically to
sell their articles and books, and have direct financial remuneration in mind
from the outset. It is consequently in their interest as well to maximize
distribution, but at the same time to insure that each reader pays
per view; for this the intermediation of a publishing company to maintain
an infrastructure to exact money from paying customers
and to root out bootleg distribution may well remain welcome.
So in scholarly publication, we have a situation wherein authors can joke
that they would pay people to read their articles. (N.B. this potential paucity
of readership for any given article must not be used as an argument that
support of basic research is intrinsically wasteful -- it simply results from
the naturally restricted size of a highly specialized community, and does not
directly measure the ultimate utility of the research.) So the essential point
is now self-evident:
if we the researchers are not writing with the expectation of making money
directly from our efforts, then there is no earthly reason why anyone else
should make money in the process (except for a fair return on any non-trivial
"value-added" they may provide; or except if, as was formerly the case in
the paper-only era, the true costs of making
our documents publicly available are sufficiently high to require that they be
sold for a fee).
Now we are ready to consider the current role played by publishers of
physics research information (at least in certain fields).
4. The Current Role of Physics Journals?
It is ordinarily claimed that journals play
two intellectual roles: a) to communicate research information, and b)
to validate this information for the purpose of job and grant allocation.
As I've explained, the role of journals as communicators of information
has long since been supplanted in certain fields of physics, so let's consider
their other role. Having queried a number of colleagues concerning the
criteria they use in evaluating job applicants and grant proposals,
it turns out that the otherwise unqualified number of
published papers is too coarse a criterion and plays essentially no role.
Researchers are typically familiar with the research in their own field,
and must in any event independently evaluate it
together with letters of recommendation from trusted sources.
Recent activity levels of candidates were mentioned
as a criterion, but that too is independent of publication per se:
"hot preprints" on a CV can be as important as any publication.
So many of us have long been aware that certain physics journals
currently play NO role whatsoever for physicists.
Their primary role seems to be to provide a revenue stream to publishers,
a revenue stream invisibly siphoned from overhead on research contracts
through library systems.
5. Potential Pitfalls
So this goes a long way to explaining how it could possibly be
that a system whose primary virtue is instant retransmission is able
to supplant entirely established journals as a credible information source
in certain fields. (Though it is true that e-print archives
are technologically somewhat ahead of what established publishers are offering
in ease of use and functionality, and are likely to remain so for the
With an example of an electronic system that physicists will voluntarily and
actively use in hand, it is illuminating to consider how a poor understanding
of the properties and potentialities of the electronic medium
can lead to badly mistaken implementations. An example of this
was an American Physical Society (APS) "request for proposals"
for an on-line version of Physical Review Letters back in autumn 1993.
Its superficial problem involved asking that the electronic
version be identical in appearance to the printed version --- in other
words to clone electronically every unnecessary artifact of the paper version.
Its more profound problem is that the entire journal structure and
organization needs to be reconsidered in light of the electronic format.
In an era of instantaneous communication, why is there still a need for a
letters journal with its draconian page limits and atavistic claims of
rapid publication? As is well-known to potential physicist readers,
artificial constraints result in articles too telegraphic to be useful
either to experts or to non-experts.
While I have used familiarity with the situation within one small
sector of physics publishing to illustrate these points, feedback from
researchers in other fields indicates that there is a generic and
growing frustration at the slowness of existing publishers to recognize that
the needs of researchers can potentially be served in an electronic format
in novel and creative ways. The current problem consists both of
misguided selection criteria and of misplaced goals:
publishers may measure the success of their journals by the number of pages
published, whether certain artifactual and unnecessary constraints are met,
and whether they're published "on time" (i.e. with regularity, not with speed).
"Useful", "readable", "innovative" are not necessarily primary criteria in
this established framework.
Even benign, nonprofit organizations and learned societies
can easily become addicted to the amenities of scholarly publishing
and lose track of their original mandate: thus placing the revenue-generating
potential of their established publishing enterprises
above the need to furnish creative intellectual services to their constituents.
Until recently, there were few effective options for physicists or other
researchers to break into an intellectually void closed loop involving only
publisher and library systems. The resources necessary for production and
distribution of conventional printed journals allowed publishers to focus
on their mechanics, and avoid any pressure to rethink the intellectual
content and quality of their operations.
6. Problems and Possibilities
Why is it that the current implementation of peer review, as employed by
paper journals, needs to be entirely rethought in view of new possibilities
afforded by electronic publication and dissemination?
A most obvious problem in the current scheme is that as the number of
researchers in any given field has grown (both due to global population
increase and increased cold war funding for the sciences),
the number of papers published in journals for any given field
has vastly exceeded the ability of any one researcher to read and absorb.
While perhaps there once was a time when a physicist could pick up a single
journal each month and read it from cover to cover to remain abreast of all of
physics, this idyllic state of affairs is not even a distant memory
for any recent generation of physicists. Nonetheless, this outmoded methodology
effectively remains the basis for many aspects of the current implementation
of peer review, in physics and in other fields.
Once the mere fact of publication in a journal no longer gives a
particularly useful guide, readers are forced to perform the majority of the
selection on their own by some set of additional criteria, and their primary
need is simply access to the information as quickly as possible. For this
reason, a systematic preprint system was set up for high energy physics
institutions in the early 70's and largely usurped the role of
conventional journals as conveyors of topical information.
This widespread preference for rapid access over the limited filtering provided
by peer review was even more dramatically reinforced with the advent of the
electronic preprint (e-print) archives in the early 90's, which quickly grew to
supplant as well the conventional archival role of journals in many fields.
This is not, however, to argue that peer review cannot in principle provide
substantial added-value to the reader. One of the foremost problems at present
is the large amount of information lost in the conventional peer
review process, with the end result only a single one-time
all-or-nothing binary decision. Although this may somehow be adequate for the
purpose of validating research for job and grant allocation, it clearly
provides little benefit to the average reader.
A variety of superficial improvements can easily be implemented
immediately in the electronic realm.
Since there are no financial or physical barriers to widespread dissemination,
we can imagine a relatively complete raw archive unfettered by any unnecessary
delays in availability. Any type of information could be overlayed on this
raw archive and maintained by any third parties.
For example the archive could be effectively partitioned into sectors,
gradated according to overall importance, quality of research,
or other useful criteria, and papers could be shifted retroactively as
dictated by additional information or follow-up research.
And rather than face only an undifferentiated bitstream,
the average reader could benefit from an interface that recommended a set
of "essential reads" for a given subject from any given time period.
There could also be retroactively added descriptive information,
"this paper was important since it drew upon a,b,c [hyperlinks to sources]
and led to new developments x,y,z [more hyperlinks]" to provide
a further guide to the literature. Or the interface could point to a specific
paper as having been important, but warn the beginner to go first to a later
paper by the same (or other authors) that subsumes, extends, or corrects
the same results in a more understandable fashion; or this paper generated much
attention but skip it since the fad played itself out and people returned
to more serious pursuits. The literature need not be frozen in time
as in the paper medium, but can remain as fluid as the research itself.
Even interdisciplinary research (for example if I as a particle physicist
wished to peruse the recent literature in biophysics or even biochemistry)
can be easily facilitated by an interface that allows rapid identification
of papers that provide pedagogic review material or are otherwise likely to
be of specific interest to outsiders. Further possibilities such as moderated
comments threads attached to specific points in papers together with more
exotic features can be added in successive stages as desired.
7. Who needs it?
Will the enthusiastic use of the instant communication provided by free
access to unreviewed electronic archives ultimately emerge only as an artifact,
preferred only in isolated subsets of the scientific community? This is
to a certain extent an experimental question, answerable only after all the
bits have settled. But it is worthwhile to speculate on features that may
characterize those scientific sub-communities most likely to
find it practical and efficient in the future to sidestep the conventional
peer-review structure for rapid access to new results, while still
maintaining some form of electronic peer-review system to
provide validation of and guidance to their archival literature.
In other words, looking beyond current experience drawn from a well-defined and
highly interactive community of voracious readers with a pre-existing hard-copy
preprint habit, with a standardized word processor and a generally high degree
of computer literacy, with a rational means of assigning intellectual priority
(i.e. at the point of dissemination rather than only after peer-review), and
with little concern about patentable content --- all of which may be regarded
as momentary historical accident --- is there some more abstract
characterization of the required autonomy that allows a circumscribed community
to flourish rather than suffocate in its own unreviewed output stream?
Again it will be easier to argue these issues in retrospect someday,
but at least one noteworthy feature can be identified: in my own research
discipline, the author and reader communities (and consequently as well the
referee community) essentially coincide. Such a closed peer community
may signal a greater intrinsic likelihood for acceptance and utility
of free electronic dissemination of unreviewed material.
Research communities comprised of a relatively small number of authors and a
much larger number of readers could ultimately settle on a very
different model, wherein the institutions that support the research assert
copyright privilege, assume the role of publishers, and disseminate material
produced in-house for a fee to those institutions that only consume it.
Though this would upset proponents of free electronic access to all publicly
supported research material, it would at least be a logical system, in which
the real risk-takers --- namely the institutions that support research by way
of investment in salary and equipment --- are able to profit from and protect
the products of that investment.
The current system, which cedes full copyright of high-quality content
to low-risk publishers who step in at the last moment and provide at most a
comparatively insignificant few hundred dollars of added-value (in most cases
even selling it back at high prices to the initial sponsoring institution),
has never been particularly sensible.
8. Cloudy Futures
For the moment, conventional publishers have continued to
express their unbridled enthusiasm for open electronic dissemination
systems, despite an intrinsic potential for subversion.
As long as their bottom line is unaffected, they can afford to be
arbitrarily magnanimous in their desire for peaceful coexistence:
"After all we have long been in the business of propagating research
information, we would never dream of trying to suppress it in any way..."
But ever financially pressed research libraries are poised for
triage of their journal subscriptions.
And as pointed out by Quinn (1994), there's a potential
explicit mechanism to encourage preferential cutting of subscriptions to
Libraries, faced with difficult choices, may decide that physicists already
have an alternate information feed from the raw global electronic database;
and physicists may well complain the least (or not at all) when their journals
are threatened with cancellation.
(Indeed this is already reported to be happening in India and other
places with severely limited financial resources --
as argued above, the less developed countries stand to benefit at least equally
from recent technological developments).
The physics and math archives now offer a variety of choices of high quality
output formats (TeX source, hyperdvi,
gzipped hyperPostScript with choice of font resolution or type 1 PS, or
pdf, ...) and will be able to support higher level formats as they become
available. With this aspect of end-user accommodation thus trivialized,
the near-term concerns have shifted to the continued development of a robust
global mirroring system, and to better means of handling meta-level indexing
information. Additional mirror distribution sites and caching proxy servers
will give better response times, especially to international users whose
access is increasingly impeded during times of day when their
national networks and transcontinental links suffer from the congestion
caused by recent increases in non-academic network traffic.
In the long-term, they also provide a global backup system resistant to
localized database corruption and/or loss of network connectivity.
The problems of indexing and categorization of information
in principle lie within the purview of the library and information science
communities, but to date theirs has been a curiously low profile
in the electronic realm, while various amateur brute-force indexing schemes
are running dangerously amok. It would be remarkable if centuries of
ostensibly relevant experience will find little applicability in the network
We should also be alert to risks borne by authors who may find themselves
prematurely encouraged to abandon "chemicals adsorbed onto sliced processed
dead trees" in favor of an electronic-only archival format. There is a
certain leap of faith involved here, since every once in a while one does after
all get lucky and write a paper that could still attract readership a century
from now. The physical format, with a worldwide system of institutional
libraries serving as a multiply redundant distributed archive, has proven
robust on the timescale of centuries to anything short of global cataclysm
(in which case we'd probably have more pressing concerns). No
current electronic format has proven similar longevity --- for the simple
reason that all have been in existence for little more than a decade if
that. Few claim to know what will be the preferred electronic format a
century from now, but I'm willing to go out on a limb and assert that it
will be none of TeX, PostScript, PDF, Microsoft Word, nor any other format
currently in existence. On the other hand, this is certainly not a
fundamental problem of principle, and perhaps scientists will eventually come
to rely on much-needed logistical assistance from future librarians in their
role as archivists: just as endangered material on decaying acid paper is
currently migrated to microfilm, automated translation to newer and more
general electronic formats should always be possible during transition
periods, provided there is an acknowledged need to prevent our living
research archives from becoming data cemeteries.
One possibility is that some consortium of professional
societies and institutional libraries will ultimately acquire the technical
competence to provide umbrella sponsorship of the global raw research archive.
Those societies that are as well non-profit publishers may continue to organize
high-quality peer-reviewed overlays (though perhaps no longer as a means of
generating income to subsidize other non-publishing ventures), and certain
commercial publishers accustomed to large pre-tax profit margins on their
academic publishing activities will probably have to learn to compete in
more realistic marketplaces.
In the long term, it is difficult to imagine how the current model
of funding publishing companies through research libraries (in turn funded
by overhead on research grants) can possibly persist. As argued by
(1994), it is premised on a paper medium that was difficult to produce,
difficult to distribute, difficult to archive, and difficult to duplicate --
a medium that hence required numerous local redistribution points in the
form of research libraries.
The electronic medium shares none of these features and thus naturally
facilitates largescale disintermediation, with attendant increases
in efficiency benefitting both researchers and their sources of funding.
As described above, recent developments have exposed the extent to which
current publishers have defined themselves in terms of production and
distribution, roles which we now regard as trivially automated. But there
remains a pressing need for organization of intellectual value-added,
which by definition cannot be automated even in principle, and that
leaves significant opportunities for any agency willing to listen to what
researchers want and need.