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The Impact of Electronic Publishing

Electronic forms of sharing and collaboration are gradually changing the landscape through which knowledge flows.

“It has always been a characteristic of our planet that, besides eating and sleeping and squabbling and reproducing, we are also producing knowledge,” writes Stevan Harnad, a scientist at Université du Québec à Montréal (Canada), who has been a vocal advocate in changing how we go about publishing all that knowledge. Electron-borne information is clearly transforming academic publishing; not just affecting how journals and books are assembled and distributed, but stirring up the culture that surrounds the creating and sharing of new knowledge.

Some of these new manifestations look like hot-rodded versions of things we knew in the past (online journals, eBooks); while others (like research repositories, wikis, RSS feeds) are novel variants that may ultimately live or die, but meanwhile are teaching us lessons about how our research community really works.

Along those lines, a publishing milestone occurred this year. In a world where the top scientific journals can cost subscribers over $10,000 per year, an online science journal with a subscription price of $0 won a 13.9 impact-factor rating from the prestigious Thomson Scientific (formerly Thomson ISI) citation-counting service (Institute for Scientific Information), which acts as the Nielsen ratings of science publishing. That rating placed PLoS (Public Library of Science) Biology among the top journals in its category, although it was only two years old.

The non-profit Public Library of Science currently publishes four journals that embody the principles of the Open Access movement, making peer-reviewed medical and scientific research available worldwide for free, under the Creative Commons license. In place of subscriptions, the authors themselves (or their funding agencies) cover the costs of online publishing, to the tune of about $1,500 per article. The Directory of Open Access Journals lists 1,761 publications that meet its criteria as “free, full-text, quality-controlled scientific and scholarly journals.”

A second approach to open access publishing is called “author self-archiving.” Following this so-called “green road,” the author publishes the article in a traditional journal, but retains the rights to post it in an open-access repository. Harnad, who edits the American Scientist Open Access Forum, has advocated this approach. He has argued that self-archiving frees up research more quickly than waiting for every journal (and every scientist) to convert to a new business model. Maximize access to research and you maximize its impact, g'es the argument.

Self-archiving could not exist without online research repositories. The granddaddy of repositories is arXiv begun at Los Alamos National Laboratory and now hosted at Cornell (NY). But many public access papers are hosted in local repositories run by the author’s host institution. Search engines like CiteSeer.IST provide access to these far-flung resources.

The major for-profit publishing houses are taking notice. This summer, Elsevier lifted the toll-gate on one of its online publications, offering the computer science journal Information and Computation free to all comers for one year as an experiment, to see whether free access would increase traffic. Elsevier, Springer Verlag, John Wiley & Sons, and [according to the EPrints database] over 70 other publishers have moved many of their journals into the green category, which means that authors are free to republish their work on open access repositories.

In March, the National Institutes of Health adopted a new policy that will automatically open up much research: If you get an NIH grant, you must now agree to publish your paper under open access terms within 12 months after it appears in a refereed journal. The SPARC Open Access Newsletter is keeping track of the impact of the new policy.

But writing papers and getting them published in formal journals is not the only way that knowledge gets to be made public these days. Scientists and scholars are sharing knowledge through technologies such as wikis (e.g.,, Web sites written and edited by the communities that gathers around them. PlanetMath, for example, was founded to compile a repository of math information. Interested in the four-color conjecture? Check out the article about it on PlanetMath. That particular article is “owned” by Boris Bukh, a UC-Berkeley student, but edits have been suggested by other readers as well.

Electronic Publishing: Examples and Resources

American Scientist Open Access Forum –- Researchers discuss open access issues. Moderated by Stevan Harnad.

arXiv –- ePrint repository in the fields of physics, mathematics, non-linear science, computer science, and quantitative biology, run by Cornell University (NY).

CiteSeer.IST, Scientific Literature Digital Library –- A search engine that finds PostScript and PDF research articles on the Web, focusing on computer and information science.

Digital Medievalist Project –- Supports the use of digital tools in medieval studies. Includes a wiki, RSS feed, and an online journal.

Directory of Open Access Journals –- Lists over 1,700 open-access refereed journals.

EPrints –- Provides resources in support of open access, including an institution archives registry, free software for creating a Web-based institutional repository, and a list of publishers’–and journals–self-archiving policies.

Information and Computation –- Publisher Elsevier has made this online computer science journal available free for a year.

PlanetMath –- Includes a wiki encyclopedia of math knowledge.

Public Library of Science –- Non-profit organization that publishes PLoS Biology and other open access science journals.

SPARC Open Access Newsletter –- Monthly newsletter edited by Peter Suber. The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition was initiated by the Association of Research Libraries to advance scholarly communication.

Wikipedia –- Articles on electronic publishing, open access, RSS, self archiving,Web syndication, and wikis.

The Digital Medievalist Project is a good example of how a whole shopping bag of online collaborative technologies can be brought together to strengthen an academic community. The project encompasses a wiki (in the form of an encyclopedia that captures the knowledge needed for projects like creating digital editions of medieval works), an RSS feed (a server that sends its subscribers news about conferences and publications), an online refereed journal, a discussion forum, and a mailing list.

The Tradition Continues…

The English word publish was in use before the printing press was invented. It meant “to noise abroad, to make known.” Ink-and-paper has served academe well for a long time, but new collaboration technologies may end up being even more important for satisfying our feverish urge to create new knowledge and to share it with our peers.

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