Copyright (c) 1994,1995 Michael Brundage. All rights reserved.

Scholarly Publication at a Turning Point

There were a number of good presentations on this topic at the conference; on the first day alone were Scholarly Publication at a Turning Point, by Andrew Odlyzko, Reinventing Scholarly Communications, by Peter Lyman, and a group discussion What is a Mathematical Publication? (featuring Frank Quinn's provoking Roadkill on the Electronic Highway? The Threat to the Mathematical Literature). Because these presentations were quite a bit more interesting than my own views on this topic, I will try to reproduce some of the highlights here for you.

Newton may have succeeded because he stood on the shoulders of giants, but it also helped that there were not so many mathematics articles for him to read. Dr. Odlyzko estimates that in the past century, the number of math articles published annually has increased by a factor of about 25 (his numbers were 840 in 1870, 2100 in 1940, 16600 in 1970, and 50000+ in 1990). Unlike the explosive growth of the internet, the publication rate (at least in mathematics) has rougly levelled off now; as you see, it had been doubling every twenty years or so. A typical math library may spend several hundred thousand dollars each year on math journals alone (some libraries spend millions of dollars - how much does yours spend?). As journal prices increase, the number of subscriptions decrease.

Electronic journals offer an alternative to this; indeed, all the printing costs are eliminated. It is easier to publish one's work (electronic journals do not do away with the editing/acceptance process, but they do speed it up), and it is easier to access an online reference than one in a library (which may have fixed office hours, or even be miles away). Too often the talk of what may happen focuses too much on the print medium. Electronic journals clearly offer a medium irreproduceable in plain text. What journal article can talk or perform interactive graphics demonstrations? Yet electronic journal articles can do this. No longer do bibliographic references have to be backward-looking; now an article can refer to articles published after it, as well. At least one e-journal has recently implemented truly dynamic surveys. Corrections can be made instantaneously; related articles are a click of the button away, instead of somewhere in a stack of papers in your office.

Email has already changed the process of scholarly publication up to publication itself, and it is only a matter of time before that too is fundamentally changed. For some disciplines, such as high-energy physics, e-print servers have totally altered the way research is done. Although there was a significant amount of debate about how the changes should come to pass, there seemed to be almost total agreement among the participants in the conference that e-journals will -- if not totally replace -- at least mostly supplant traditional print journals over the next five to ten years.

Of course, there are a number of issues to be resolved. There are the perennial content v. format discussions, and the need for document authentication. As Peter Lyman pointed out, the ``unit of knowledge'' is changing. Once it was the journal; later articles on demand. Now you can serach for a quote or even a symbolic expression. Two potential areas for contention are the acceptance of e-journals for tenure or hiring decisions and the peer review process involved refereeing a journal. There are minor technical difficulties, of course (whose TeX style file to use...), ease of access (bandwidth, usage tolls, ...), etc. Many are concerned about data archival and security issues - clearly these need to find resolution before the e-journal revolution can get fully underway.

All of which leads to several fundamental questions, which were real sore spots throughout the conference: What will happen to traditional publishers and publishing houses? What will happen to traditional libraries and librarians?

To quote Pat Morgan's answer to ``who decides what is mathematics communication?'': What would you like it to be? I think that publishers and libraries will gradually adapt to the changing technology, just like the rest of us will. In fact, one equally good question (which wasn't raised) is: What will happen to traditional professors and universities? After all, if being able to access information instantaneously from your desktop might eliminate the need for libraries (I think it will actually make them more important...), the ability to access lecture notes instantaneously from your desktop might just as well eliminate the need for universities.

I personally think this is unlikely, but there are several related issues which are perhaps just as significant (and I'm sure you can think of millions more). In a free-access environment, won't some libraries (and publishers, and universities) become obsolete? After all, why attend a course (via the Net) at the UW, when you can attend a course at Harvard? Why subscribe to a journal at all when you can get the latest results from your peers through email (and evaluate it on your own)?

Truly the information age is upon us. I think we will see many things change (for better or worse), and I think it is very difficult to imagine what or how these changes will be. Before electricity, who could have predicted the microwave oven? And I think that the advent of the Net is as fundamental a development as the discovery of electricity, because it will (and already has) fundamentally changed the way we communicate, both personally (one on one) and professionally (through the literature to other mathematicians in the present and future).

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