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Introduction - The Transition from Paper

by R. Stephen Berry and Anne Simon Moffat

October 14, 1999—Chicago, Illinois

The world of communication is going through a transition unlike any that humans have ever experienced, with far-reaching consequences possibly greater than any prior advance since the invention of written language. Now communications are faster, cheaper, and potentially more accessible than we could have imagined even just a decade ago. Information of traditional and very nontraditional kinds is available, in principle, for anyone with a link to the internet. The scientific community has been at the vanguard in developing and using the new modes and in experiencing the consequences, both positive and negative, of the transition. We are still in the early stages of that transition, trying to feel our way ahead. The project that produced this set of essays has been an attempt to anticipate changes and to feel our way ahead in the process.

Motivated by a desire to better understand these changes and their consequences, and by an awareness that the scientific community may have only a brief window of opportunity to shape the course of electronic communications, a group of scientists (one the editor-in-chief of a professional society's journals), a commercial publisher, a writer and a librarian came together under the auspices of the Midwest Center of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to examine what might be the future for the accumulation, exchange and archiving of scientific information. The group consists of:

  • Steven Bachrach, Trinity College, San Antonio, TX (formerly Northern Illinois University)
  • Martin Blume, American Physical Society
  • Alex Fowler, The Electronic Frontier Foundation (formerly Policy Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science)
  • Paul Ginsparg, Los Alamos National Laboratory
  • Steven Heller, U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • Neil Kestner, Louisiana State University
  • Andrew Odlyzko, AT&T Bell Laboratories
  • Ann Okerson, Yale University
  • Thomas von Foerster, Springer-Verlag
  • Ronald Wigington, American Chemical Society (retired)
  • R. Stephen Berry, The University of Chicago (chairman)
  • Anne Moffat, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (staff officer and writer)

In three meetings and extensive on-line dialogue over a three-year period, the group developed a coherent perspective, not unanimous on every issue but still one with full understanding and appreciation of all the viewpoints. The results have been a joint article published in Science and reproduced here, and a set of essays, personal perspectives which constitute most of this collection.

The group set out to envision possible worlds of electronic communication in the years 2020 or 2030, beyond the time during which we will depend on technologies now in use or anticipated shortly. We had no illusions about the hazards of predicting the future, but felt we need now to expand our current vision of possible futures. We found it useful to pursue the mode used by Herman Kahn at the Hudson Institute; we invented scenarios and pursued their consequences to get a sense of what might be. As it did for the Hudson Institute, this device enabled us to conceive futures we might like, and others we would want to avoid.

One key concept emerged and penetrated all our thinking. It pervades the background thinking and some of the discussion in virtually all the essays. That concept is one of a virtual "Global e-Archive," a system in which the world's scientific knowledge would be stored in a readily-searchable form, by anyone with access to the world-wide network, whatever it is called in 2020. In this system, it is possible to locate and obtain distinctive pieces of information, to move from one source to another, to use all the power of electronic searching and linking, to communicate at all levels from the most casual to the most formal and archival, and to distribute information in a far wider variety of ways than has been possible in printed-paper journals.

The concept of this archive is by no means one of a single, journal-like entity. Rather, it is a composite, extremely unlikely to be collected in its entirety in any single place but, like a giant, fungal mycelium, is something that permeates vast distances, with enough redundancy to guarantee considerable stability and permanence. It would also be a composite, in that it would have many "rooms," each with its own rules of entry and behavior. Some rooms would give free access to everyone; some would be open only to subscribers; some would give a free glimpse, in the form of a table of contents and perhaps a set of abstracts, but would require payment to gain full use of the material. Some would require no reviewing or fee to deposit information there; others would require traditional reviewing, as most scientific journals do now; some would require those depositing information (that is, "articles") to pay a fee for the privilege of depositing. In short, the giant e-Archive would be an agglomeration of the contributions of groups and individuals including, for example, commercial publishers, professional societies and Federal or other government-laboratory institutions; all would agree to make their systems compatible and fully linkable, but would operate their own piece according to their own rules, which would be compatible with all the other groups also setting their own rules. Such a system would offer an optimal environment for a sifting and adaptation process, in which less viable "rooms" would change or disappear, and "rooms" more attractive to the scientific community would be heavily visited. The physicists' rooms and the clinical researchers' rooms need not have the same rules. Yet, they could exist perfectly well together and share a common facility that links the information each has accumulated. There would be a forum of participants and managers, analogous to the group that now oversees the internet, to enable participants to maintain their mutual compatibility and adapt the entire system as technology and needs evolve.

With this vision, each author has chosen a subject to pursue. Some of these will open our eyes to potentialities we desire. Others discuss problems that have to be addressed and barriers that must be surmounted to achieve desired goals.

The first part of this volume addresses issues associated with daily teaching and research. Andrew Odlyzko, in his chapter on "Electronics and the Future of Education," argues that the advent of electronic communications will not force a large scale displacement of classroom teachers, nor will it lead to a smaller and less expensive educational establishment. He notes that if relatively small educational institutions such as 'Podunk' Community College or Harvard College have access to the same digital libraries and to the same holographic projections of lectures, the best way for Harvard and like institutions to distinguish themselves is by stressing the quality of its faculty's ongoing interactions with students. Although technology can enhance interactive instruction, education "is primarily a process...requir[ing] extensive social interaction, " says Odlyzko. Neil Kestner, an expert on distant learning, offers his perspective on a very different style of education in "The Changing Landscape of Academics as Affected by New Communications Technology." He says that "academics has become more business-like whether we like it or not." The emergence of for-profit institutions of advanced learning, the growth of 'mega-universities' such as the United Kingdom's Open University with an enrollment of 150,000 students, and a shift to learner-centered instruction, which depends heavily on extensive use of technology, are examples of this trend.

In his article "Scientific Journals of the Future," Steven Bachrach probes how researchers will communicate with each other on a regular basis. Here, he notes, the advantages of the electronic communication of research findings are clear and diverse. It offers improved access, cheaper and wider distribution and the expansion of content to include audio, video and large data sets. Peer review can also be made more encompassing, he says, "empowering the community as a whole." Thomas von Foerster, in his article on "The Future(?) of Peer Review" agrees, for the most part. He suggests that because different fields have different social structures and different ways of certifying the merit of ideas, electronic forums still have different ways of operating. von Foerster says that, in the end, the styles that most reviewing and certification take will likely depend more on social factors than on technology. Stephen R. Heller in "Management of the New Infrastructure for Electronic Publications" suggests that electronic journals will require an entirely new type of 'physical plant' and professional support. "Like General Motors and the Saturn automobile," he writes, "one may have the goal of building a car, but to do it differently required starting from scratch in Tennessee, not modifying a car plant facility in Michigan." Two particular challenges are in the areas of archiving and searching where, at present, the needed technologies are not yet adequately developed. For example, the future of data collection and storage will use several media and will require much more than text searching. In "Electronic Clones vs. the Global Research Archive," Paul Ginsparg describes the path-breaking physics preprint archive, known as arXiv and established in 1991 at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a service, "created by a group of specialists for their own use." The author notes that although an original objective was to provide a level playing field for researchers at different academic levels, institutions and geographic institutions, an unexpected benefit of the archive was a dramatic reduction in the cost of disseminating physics research articles. "When researchers or professionals create such services, the results often differ markedly from the services provided by publishers and libraries," says Ginsparg. Another increasingly common form of scientific interaction will be electronic conferences, and in his article of that name Steven Bachrach suggests that such interactions are especially valuable to aid the interactions of graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and others who are unable to travel to traditional conferences. He notes, however, that although about a half dozen electronic conferences in chemistry have been held since their inception in November, 1994, growth has been slow. "Once again," Bachrach writes, " we are facing the issue of chemists adapting to and accepting the new technology (and opportunities) afforded by the Internet."

The second part of this volume discusses various legal and commercial issues associated with the transition to electronic communications. For example, in two articles, "Advancing the Electronic Information Marketplace Through Library Licensing" and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? Academic Publishing, Copyright and other Miasmas," Ann Okerson tackles some of the legal and logistical concerns of electronic publishing. A major issue is the changing roles of academic authors, publishers and librarians, with each taking on some of the formerly exclusive responsibilities of their peers in other groups. Okerson suggests that before society begins the delicate but wrenching reallocation of legal and property rights, we wait and allow the technology and market to develop. This, she says, "is a recommendation that we let a kind of market play its part and refrain from attempting, on too little knowledge and too little wisdom, to force the future to flatter our self-esteem." Ronald Wigington, in his article on "The Legal Foundation for Electronic Information: How Will It Affect Scientists?" carries the legal analysis further, interpreting how the move to electronic communications will affect researchers. He shows that legislation dealing with key issues—fair use and piracy—are evolving rapidly, both nationally and internationally. He notes, however, that this development process is " more contentious than anybody likes." He also suggests that the scientific publishing business must transform itself to operate at the level of available electronic technologies and that libraries, too, will change drastically in character, transforming themselves from warehouses to points of access for information. In his chapter on "Competition and Cooperation: Libraries and Publishers in the Transition to Electronic Scholarly Journals," Andrew Odlyzko discusses how these two major institutions may compete or complement each other as they transform themselves. He concludes that the publishers' vast market power, achieved through repeated commercial consolidations, may be counterbalanced by the increasing numbers of and size of library consortia. "How the publisher oligopoly will interact with purchaser cartels will be an interesting phenomenon to watch," Odlyzko writes.

Focusing on another sort of novel competition created by the transition away from paper communications, Martin Blume writes in "Who Should Own Scientific Papers" that it is desirable for scientific authors and publishers to have the same rights to distribute and archive the results of research. He favors doing this by having journals own copyrights but giving very liberal licences to authors, allowing them to disseminate their works. This opinion is in contrast with that expressed in the Science article authored by the entire group, which is reprinted following Blume's piece; it suggests that scientific authors retain copyright to their work and grant publishers liberal licenses. Blume sees that as one possible solution to the problem of maximizing the distribution of scientific results, but not the optimum one, from his perspective as an editor. Both of these positions stand in sharp contrast to views of some publishers, including the publishers of Science, who believe that publishers should hold copyrights and not give authors rights to distribute their 'papers' electronically, or at least make such rights very limited.

The book closes with several probes of the broad, global impacts of the transition. Berry's article, "The Rationale for 'Full and Open Access,'" expands upon the issue of the mechanisms for enhancing scientific communication. It offers strong advocacy of the author's retention of copyright, using licenses to give customary distribution rights to their publishers. "The publishing community cannot realistically expect the scientific community to cling to old ways of communicating when people invent other modes that are more effective for meeting the goals of science," he writes. In his final article, "Social Impacts of the Transition," Berry analyses the far-reaching consequences of electronic communication, both positive and negative, on complex scientific interactions and conventional activities of daily living. While noting that there are undesirable consequences of the transition, such as a further stratification of society dependent on access and understanding of computers, he asserts that "optimistic possibilities seem more numerous than the ill or untoward consequences."

We hope that this set of writings will stimulate readers to think beyond what is discussed here and to consider what may be brought into being if we work toward a particular set of designs for electronic communications. While this study has focused on the sciences and scientific information, we are fully aware that many of the ideas discussed here are applicable to all scholarly disciplines. It is the hope and intent of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that this study will be soon followed by a related investigation on the impact of burgeoning electronic communications on scholarship in the social sciences and humanities.

This study was supported by the Dreyfus Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, for which we are very grateful.

The essays in this collection were developed during the course of three workshops held October 1996, March 1997 and January 1998, organized by the Midwest Center of the American Academy of Sciences and supported by a grant from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus foundation, Inc. of New York City. The opinions expressed are those of the individual authors only, but may have been influenced significantly by the discussions held during this study.