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THE FUTURE OF SCIENTIFIC
John McCarthy, Stanford University
1996 April 2
Publication is gradually moving to the World Wide Web, and this
process will continue until print publication is rather rare. The process
will be faster for scientiﬁc publication, because the relative economic
advantages are greater and the technology is more available and fa-
miliar to the scientiﬁc community. It looks like the process will not
even have to for a generation of die-hards to be replaced.
While present technology is good enough to get the process started,
new technology will make the transition even more attractive.
There are already many on-line scientiﬁc journals, and many print
journals are already have on-line editions.
The main resistance is coming from conventional publishing or-
ganizations that face drastic down-sizing, but since they haven’t even
tried to outlaw competition (and won’t succeed if they try), the down-
sizing is inevitable. Library organizations may also face down-sizing.
Scientiﬁc publication will take many new forms.
Here are some contentions.
(a) The arrival of the display that can be read on the beach and also
in the bathtub.
(b) The development of a radio system that permits downloading
reading material anywhere in the world—indoors or out.
(c) The development of a standardized system for paying for reading
(d) Since on-line publication is much cheaper than print publication,
many organizations dependent on print publication will inevitably
be reduced in personnel. These people will have to ﬁnd jobs else-
where in the economy. Eventually, this down-sizing will aﬀect li-
braries as well as publishers. It is important that the down-sizing
not be blocked by the establishment of monopolies motivated by
the preservation of particular kinds of jobs.
However, the present technology and economic situation is already ad-
equate for a large expansion of on-line publication, and it is already
not aﬀord spending millions of dollars per year per ﬁrst rate scientiﬁc
libraries. Even with rich countries like the U.S., many institutions
cannot aﬀord ﬁrst class libraries. The commercial scientiﬁc publishers
oﬀer the greatest problems, but the scientiﬁc societies are only about
a factor of two better.
will be only a small fraction of the cost of the research that gives rise
to the publication. Exceptions can be made for unsupported research
and research from poor countries. $100 per page should be more than
adequate for journals where the articles do not require professional
editing for the insertion of pictorial material.
it seems that some need for professional editing will be required. Their
idea is that on-line services will be value-added services to print publica-
tion, so they will get more money rather than less. I think competition
with journals that are on-line from the beginning will demonstrate that
this idea is not viable.
advantage, and it can put up additional windows, for example with
terminology and deﬁnitions. It may be that professional on-line editors
will be able to do such a good job at this as will justify the cost of their
they presently hold.
been any lawsuits about this yet, so we don’t know what the courts
10. Scientists should defend at least the following concept of fair use. An
author who has not been paid for an article should be able to keep a
copy on a publicly available, free Web page without any interference
from the publisher.
11. Scientists should insist on retaining copyright to their own published
scientiﬁc papers. Journals should merely get “permission to publish”.
In fact, authors who insist on this are generally successful. Allowing
authors to retain copyright is an explicit oﬃcial policy of the American
Mathematical Society. (Assigning copyright to the Society is also an
option). Scientiﬁc societies, e.g. AAAI and ECAI, should adopt this
12. Authors may want to keep papers on their home sites.
If they do,
research announcment journals will become more important.
Publishing on line permits much smaller delays. However, the time for ref-
erees to report is often the major delay with print publication. Refereeing
serves four functions.
go away if publication is on-line and the author, as is increasingly the
custom, does the typesetting.
Other systems, such as inclusion in specialized lists can serve this func-
tion even better. The very best hiring and promotion committees don’t
just count refereed publications, they actually evaluate the work.
and provides a basis for settling disputes about priority. On the other
hand, it leads to unnecessary publication when an old paper could be
improved, but a new one has to be written. With electronics we can
have the best of both worlds. There can be two copies of a paper—one
at the journal which is archival and another at the author’s site subject
to revision. The journal can link to both.
On-line publication will be entirely viable even if it imitates print publi-
cation in its refereeing style, but here is a proposal that might make it better.
I call it light refereeing, and it has a distinguished precedent. I was curious
how the unknown Einstein, an employee of the Swiss patent oﬃce, got four
papers into Annalen der Physik the world’s leading physics journal, in the
year 1905 and wondered how long the refereeing process took. These papers
revolutionized physics, but how could the editor know that in advance?
It seems that Einstein was not quite an unknown, having published be-
fore in Annalen der Physik. That journal’s custom was that the ﬁrst paper
submitted by an author would be carefully examined, and Einstein’s ﬁrst
paper had been reviewed by Max Planck. Once the author had been blessed,
his papers would be published on receipt, and this is was the case with Ein-
stein’s four 1905 papers. Alas, we don’t get to see a referee’s report on the
ﬁrst paper about the theory of relativity.
Returning to the present, we can imagine the following light refereeing
system. An author’s ﬁrst paper is refereed in the standard way. Once an
author is blessed his papers are lightly refereed. Namely, they are immedi-
ately scheduled for publication after three months, but are sent to a referee
who is asked to suggest improvements in style or content. If the referee does
not respond, the paper is published as received or as the author has sponta-
neously revised it. Such a system will be more prompt than present journal
publication and may be preferable to the growing custom of using preprint
servers. Of course, the editor could decide that a particular paper required
more or less refereeing than the standard light refereeing.
Jeﬀ Ullman makes similar points in his Diatribe Against Paper Journals1,
also published in Computing Research News, May 1996 with the title “Web
will change the role of journals”.
/@sail.stanford.edu:/u/ftp/jmc/publications.tex: begun 1995 Feb 14, latexed 1996 Jul 5 at 6:34 p.m.