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Table of Contents
Index
Glossary
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Next: The project `Communication in Up: Communication in physics Previous: The explosion of scientific

The emergence of the electronic media

Nowadays, the computer has become pervasive in scientific communication. It has played an important supportive part in the communication process since scientific texts have been written using word processors, rather than typewriters, so that they are immediately available in digital form. In that form, they can be stored electronically and either consulted on the screen or printed on paper. With the advent of networking technology, the electronic media have started to play a leading part in communication processes: the electronic transmission of messages.

Although electronic communication channels also include carriers like CD-ROMs, the most popular channel is the Internet and its various services.1.11 The Internet is a network of electronically linked computer networks. Its development started with the ARPAnet: a network established in 1969 by the US Department of Defence to connect the military with their contractors and with the universities doing military-related research. Using this network, files could be transferred and computers could be accessed remotely. Electronic mail quickly became the most popular application.1.12 Other networks were added. TCP/IP software (developed in the seventies and adopted in the early eighties) provided computers in different networks with a common language, so the loose collection of dozens of networks was welded into a real `internet'.

The World Wide Web (WWW) was initiated in 1990 at the Centre Européen de Recherches Nucléaires (CERN), as a new service on the emerging Internet. Tim Berners-Lee, the `inventor' of the WWW, describes it as a ``distributed heterogeneous collaborative multimedia information system'' [Berners-Lee, 1991]: all information, from any source, can be accessed in a consistent and simple way. The main feature of the Web is that it is a hypertext system. It was after the introduction of the graphical interface Mosaic in 1993, that the Internet became a `household appliance'. To give an indication of the scale of the Internet, the online population in June 1999 is estimated to be about 200 million people and the number of hosts more than 43 million.1.13

The Internet can assist scientists in the communication process at different levels. Electronic mail is used for informal discussions, instead of the telephone. Electronic mail services also take the place of traditional mail for a rapid exchange of  data and manuscripts, for example between authors, between authors and editors and between editors and referees. The computer files can be distributed via the Internet and stored in on-line electronic databases, from which they can be retrieved again via the Internet. In this way, both scientific articles and practical messages can be made public. For example, The Internet Pilot To Physics [TIPTOP, 1999] is a unified physics resource, which includes an index of physics resources around the world, bulletin boards and notification services concerning practical issues, such as conference deadlines and job openings, and a forum for informal communication.

In the recent years, we have seen an explosive growth of the use of the Internet for the publication of electronic scientific articles.   In [Hitchcock , 1995], which is titled `A survey of STM on-line electronic  journals 1990-1995: the calm before the storm', 83 online journals in the domain of science, technology and medicine (STM) were examined. Since then, the storm has broken: the major science publishers have created electronic versions of all, or most of, their journals and made these available on the World Wide Web. According to [Butler, 1999, p.195] ``A journal without a web version is now rare, and probably endangered.'' To give an indication of the scale of the electronic endeavour, the distributor and agent Swets & Zeitlinger provided in June 1999 access to 9624 electronic journals in the domain of science technology and medicine.1.14

The first  electronic journals were close copies of their printed ancestors. Printed articles were scanned and made available as bitmap files after the publication of the original articles. In this approach to electronic publishing, the new technology was merely used for `long-distance photocopying'. Many publishers of electronic journals even stated explicitly that their electronic journal had to look as closely as possible like a printed journal. This seems characteristic of the application of a new technology: in a similar way, the first automobiles mimicked coaches to be horse-drawn. But the coach-like appearance of automobiles was gradually replaced by a form more appropriate to the new technology, when the advantages of an aerodynamic design were taken into account. So, the question now is: how to `streamline' electronic journals to make them more suitable vehicles for the `information highway'?

Since the beginning of the nineties, various electronic publishing initiatives have been taken. Different possibilities offered by the new technology were used to improve particular aspects of scientific communication, such as the distribution of articles, the presentation of information in the articles, and the organisation of feedback.

One of the first important initiatives for electronic publishing in physics was concerned with `preprints' (or `e-prints', as the electronic versions are called) rather than regular articles. Preprints are part of the `grey literature', i.e. in the grey area between informal and formal communication. The Los Alamos e-print archives provide a fully automated electronic archiving and distribution of preprints. For current awareness, the reader can browse a daily list of e-prints submitted in his area of interest (on the World Wide Web or sent by e-mail). In practice, the reader prints an e-print on paper in order to read it. Thus, the Internet is used for the dissemination of the same document that used to be disseminated via traditional preprint mailing lists.

This e-print service has proven so efficient that in certain domains it has supplanted traditional scientific  journals as a channel for communication between scientists.1.15 Thus, this communication channel for grey literature is becoming more formal. The main difference is that the e-prints have not been certified by means of peer review. To fill that gap, a peer reviewed electronic journal has been established in collaboration with the e-print archives: the Journal of High Energy Physics [JHEP, 1999]. In the publication of this journal, as much as possible of the administrative work involved in the refereeing and editing process, in addition to the archiving and distribution, is automated or mediated by software robots.

Another initiative that bridges the gap between informal and formal literature using the Internet has been taken by Steven Harnad [Harnad, 1991]: Psycoloquy is a refereed electronic journal, in the domain of psychology and some related disciplines, established in 1989 on the basis of an electronic bulletin board [Psycoloquy, 1999]. In this journal, articles are published along with peer commentary, all contributions being refereed by an editor. The purpose of this journal is to provide scholars with an international forum of colleagues, to whom ideas in the formative stage of their research may be submitted and from whom rapid feedback obtained. Once the research has been completed the outcome can be published elsewhere.

With respect to purely formal communication, most electronic journals currently available on the World Wide Web were launched as electronic versions of existing printed journals. The electronic versions of articles published in such journals have some additional features, although often these are limited to the implementation of references in hyperlinks, at least within the article and preferably also to the publications cited in the article. However, in some electronic journals it is possible to include items that cannot be printed. For example, the publisher of the electronic journal (with an additional paper version) New Astronomy [New Astronomy, 1999] emphasises the possibility of including large  data sets and multimedia files (e.g. animations). An important feature of this journal, and of other journals in the domains of astronomy and astrophysics, is its link with major scientific data centres (the cited data being too extensive for efficient publication in print).

In some electronic journals, particular aspects of electronic publishing technology are used to add features to the communication process, rather than just to the article itself. For example, it is possible to  search the full text of all issues of the electronic version of The Astrophysical Journal [APJ, 1999]. The Institute of Physics offers personalised services, such as alerting services, to assist the reader in managing the information flow in its journals [IOP, 1999].

In short, some aspects of the communication process are facilitated by the new media. In addition, compared with print articles, electronic articles have some additional features. However, the organisation of the information in present-day electronic journals does not differ fundamentally from the way the information is organised in the print version.



Next: The project `Communication in Up: Communication in physics Previous: The explosion of scientific