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Glossary
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Next: The emergence of the Up: Communication in physics Previous: Communication in physics

The explosion of scientific journals

In general, two types of communication channels can be distinguished: informal channels such as discussions between colleagues, and formal or archival channels. To communicate science to a larger audience systematically, across both distance and time, formal channels are indispensable. The predominant formal means of communication in science is the  scientific journal article. In our research we focus on communication via this channel.

 The emergence and evolution of the scientific journal, and of the process of scientific communication by means of journals, have been prompted by the needs of scientists and by the possibilities offered by the publication media.1.3 A significant factor in the shaping of scientific  journals is the continuing endeavour to protect the scientists from being `inundated' by the information flow. The amount of information communicated via journals has been growing considerably since the emergence of the scientific journal. Roughly speaking, the number of titles doubles every 10-15 years and, at the same time, more articles are published in each journal and the articles get longer.1.4 Scientists have long been struggling to manage this increasing information flow and to find the relevant drops of information without drowning. Nowadays, scientists believe they are only reading 40% of the relevant literature. Faraday reported the same problem already in 1826:1.5

It is certainly impossible for any person who wishes to devote a portion of his time to chemical experiment, to read all the books and papers that are published in connection with his pursuit; their number is immense, and the labour of winnowing out the few experimental and theoretical truths which in many of them are embarrassed by a very large proportion of uninteresting matter, of imagination, and error, is such, that most persons who try the experiment are quickly induced to make their selection in their reading, and thus inadvertently, at times, pass by what is really good.
To manage the information flow, the scientific community has for centuries been adjusting their communication channels.

 The first scientific journals were established in the second half of the seventeenth century. Until then small groups of scholars communicated with each other via private correspondence. Taking Great Britain as an example, we see that the subsiding of social unrest allowed for a more systematic organisation of the scientific effort. As a result the Royal Society was formed in 1662. In the beginning, Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of the society who corresponded extensively, read relevant letters aloud at the meetings of the society. However, the correspondence soon started to overburden him. He tackled this problem by printing and distributing the most important letters; thus, the journal Philosophical Transactions: Giving Some Accompt of the Present Undertakings, Studies and Labours of the Ingenious in Many Considerable Parts of the World was established.1.6 This development was possible because of the `inventio sine qua non' of the printing press.

By 1789, the Neues medicinisches Wochenblatt für Aerzte complained: ``This is truly the decade of the journal, and one should seek to limit their number rather than to increase them, since there can also be too many periodicals''.1.7 At that time, the sciences started to differentiate and, in fact, the problem was that there were too many general science journals but not enough specialised journals to allow the reader to filter the information flow. Thus, in response to this problem, many specialised journals were founded in the nineteenth century. The trend of specialisation, and the related trend of professionalisation, have restricted the number of journals that a scientist must consult in order to stay informed of the developments in his domain. These trends also have restricted the readership of specialist journals: nowadays only scientists in a very specific branch of a domain can understand the articles published in such journals.

In the beginning of the nineteenth century the information flow via specialised journals, in particular journals published by specialised learned societies, was increasing. The information flow, however, was far from smooth: there was an unacceptable publication delay. One of the causes for the delay was the habit of reading submitted papers in the annual society meeting before they could be published in the journal. Further delay was caused, in particular in smaller learned societies, by the fact that it took a long time to collect sufficient articles to warrant the publication of a journal issue. Distribution was hampered by the high costs of postage and it was so limited that a large part of the potential readership could not be reached. The situation improved when the publishing efforts of the learned societies became as professional as the scientific effort of the members. This professionalisation of the publishing effort was boosted after the Second World War by the sudden growth of the number of journals published by commercial publishers.

In response to the growth of the number of journals, secondary literature was established at an early stage: `abstract journals' assisting the scientist in managing the primary literature. At first, abstracts were only published separately in abstract journals, but later abstracts were also included in the article itself. A present-day example of secondary literature is Current Contents, published by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), which contains bibliographic information about primary journals in a particular domain.

With the professionalisation of science, the nature of the scientific experiments changed.  The content and format of scientific articles changed accordingly. In [Bazerman, 1988, p.66,68], experimental reports published in the Philosophical transaction between 1665 and 1800 are compared:

In the first volume of the Transactions, a number of experiments reported are simply cookbook recipes for creating marvellous effects or effects of practical use. [...] By volume 90 authors talk about the necessity of establishing general knowledge and the role of experiment in testing our beliefs as well as filling out our knowledge.
Thus, the article had started to play a role in the scientific debate. Consequently, methodological issues gained in importance, and the results of the experiments were reported with increasing attention to precise and quantitative detail. At the same time this professionalisation was reflected in the formalisation of the discourse in the article. This led to the prototypical sections in scientific articles: Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion and Conclusions.  

 These changes not only involved the content of the scientific discourse of the article, but also the bibliographic aspects of the article. Since the first scientific articles simply reported loosely connected experiments, they contained few references if any. In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, most articles do refer to previous work, which may be a sign of the increasing integration of scientific effort. However, many readers had difficulties in locating the cited work using the incomplete references that were given at that time. The situation improved with the standardisation of the references in particular and of the bibliographic information in general.

 Since the Second World War, the problem of the information overload has become acute. The information flow has increased so dramatically that it is sometimes referred to as an `information explosion'. For the individual scientist it has become difficult to keep up even with the secondary literature, let alone the primary literature. The scientist not only has to cope with the current journals, but also with the accumulated archives.1.8 As an indication of the scale, the Institution of Electrical Engineers scans over 4000 scientific and technical journals and some 2000 conference publications for the bibliographic INSPEC database. At the end of 1997, the Database contained nearly 6 million bibliographic records and is growing at the rate of 330,000 records a year [IEE, 1999].

The main cause of the information explosion is the rapid growth in the number of scientists since the Second World War. Another factor is the mechanism of funding research on the basis of the number of publications [Coles, 1993, p.12]:

The case study interviewees agreed that, although publications are necessary to establish the worth of a scientist, the importance placed on publications by assessment régimes fuels the volume of published science. The pressure to publish was seen to lead to 'salami slicing', multi-authored papers, repetitious publishing and the continuance of some journals of dubious quality.

The communication system has not been able to keep up with this information explosion. Consequently, ``in some disciplines it is occasionally easier to repeat an experiment than it is to determine that the experiment has already been done.'' [Garvey, 1979, p.8].1.9 Thus, although a massive amount of information is available, it does not flow to the scientists who need the information.1.10

The emergence of electronic media can help to tackle this problem, as the new technology can greatly facilitate the storage, retrieval, and dissemination of scientific information. However, simply increasing the amount of available information using this technology will only aggravate the information overload. It follows therefore, that the communication system and the information that is to be communicated must be well-organised, taking into account the possibilities offered by the technology.



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