The Internet and Scholarly Publishing

 

Christopher D. Green

York University

christo@yorku.ca

 

Presented at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Research Seminar 2002:
"The Internet and the History of Mental Health."
Toronto, 22 May 2002.

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The past decade has seen a growing revolution in the modes of communication employed by members of the academic community. This revolution has been brought about primarily by the spread of internet access throughout the academic world. So integrated has the WWW become into our professional and even personal lives, it is hard to believe that it was only initiated by the Geneva-based European Lab for Particle Physics (CERN) just over a decade ago. There was some e-mail and netnews before that time, but little in the way of publicly-accessible computer sites where information could be stored and readily retrieved by remote users at a later time.

It didn't take long before some of the academics who use computer most -- physicists -- discovered that the new technology had some enormous advantages over the traditional print journal. Instead of waiting for weeks for editors, publishers, and postal systems to do all the things that must be done in order to get a manuscript reproduced and into the hands of its readers, research reports could be instantaneously posted by the authors themselves, and just as instantaneously retrieved by would-be readers anywhere in the world. Thus was born in 1991 the first and still most prominent of the academic electronic archives -- arXiv.org. by Paul Ginsparg of Los Alamos, NM (though it has recently moved to Cornell).

Perhaps because of the way physics is done, and the ways in which physicists traditionally communicate with each other, arXiv never aspired to be an "electronic journal," or even to replace traditional journals with itself. The intent was simply to enable physicists (and later mathematicians and computer scientists) to communicate with each other more quickly and easily than had been possible before. It has taken a long time for the rest of the academic world to catch up with arXiv. Initially, a number of small groups, usually in various out-of-the-way corners of the academic world, began their own "electronic journals." Then many commercial publishers, eager to head off the oft-threatened revolution that would sweep them away, began creating electronic editions of the journals they already print-published. In some ways this has been a useful evolution, but an awful lot of "baggage" having to do strictly with the exigencies of printing articles on paper and then mailing them to the readers seem to have been carried over to many of the electronic journals; exigencies that only hamper the timeliness and clarity of communication. For instance: (1) Instead of posting new articles as soon as they are ready, they are still often saved and bundled together into "issues." (2) Even though electronic publication not only of still pictures, but also of audio and video, is cheap and easy, most electronic journals are just as nearly-exclusively text-based as their print predecessors. (3) Even though additional replies, commentaries, and other kinds of cross-talk on the electronic medium costs almost nothing, there is little more of it in electronic journals than in traditional print journals. (Stevan Harnad's Psycoloquy is an obvious exception, but he also edited the open peer-review print journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences before Psycoloquy came on to the scene.)

Without going into too much more detail here, my point is that there is no real reason to attempt to replicate the accidental features of traditional scholarly print journals in the electronic medium. Although I doubt it would be possible, or even desirable, for us to begin again, as it were, entirely from the ground up, we should learn as quickly as we can to employ the features that the new electronic medium affords us without being too terribly hampered by our publishing past. One lesson that is now being learned (or re-learned, as it turns out) across the academic world is that it is in many ways preferable to have a publicly accessible archive of "eprints" (short for both "electronic preprint" and "electronic reprint") than it is to slavishly replicate the traditional journal in electronic form. This is the model that arXiv.org pioneered over a decade ago, and that, after an initial excursion into the possibility of "electronic journals," is now turning up all over the scientific world, and even in certain parts of the humanities as well. Some of the titles include:

      the Chemistry Preprint Server (http://preprint.chemweb.com/CPS/)

      Clinical Medicine NetPrints (http://clinmed.netprints.org/home.dtl)

      Stevan Harnad's CogPrints, an open archive of articles related to cognitive science (http://cogprints.soton.ac.uk/)

      the PhilSci Archive, an open archive at U. Pittsburgh for the philosophy of science (http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/).

      and my own History & Theory of Psychology Eprint Archive, or "HTP Prints" (http://htpprints.yorku.ca/), about which more later.

Part of the reason for the recent explosion of interest in eprint archives has been the availability of a standardized public domain software for creating them (http://www.eprints.org/). This software can be installed relatively easily (if you're a bit of a "UNIX-head"). In most places it has been installed on servers in academic institutions by the computer technicians employed in such places to do such things for the faculty. Another factor has been the establishment of a widely accepted set of standards for eprint archives -- the Open Archives Initiative (http://www.openarchives.org/). Boring as this might sound, it is really the more important aspect because it will enable one to search a wide array of different eprint archives from a single search engine. As a result, you won't have to know which eprint archives contain what; just go to a single site with an appropriately linked search engine, and search them all, all at once. There are currently 78 registered eprint archives (http://oaisrv.nsdl.cornell.edu/Register/BrowseSites.pl). The include everything from the Comparative Bantu to Dictionary to the Caltech Earthquake Engineering Research Laboratory; from the Tobacco Control Digital Repository to the Dermatology Digital Repository. And, there are dozens more that are OAI-compliant but haven't yet registered for one reason or another. One can expect hundreds in the next few years.

There is currently a great deal of confusion over the constraints (or lack thereof) of eprint archives. There is no one academic model for the eprint archive. Some are based on a particular discipline (such as physics or cognitive science) and invite contributors from anywhere. Others are have no disciplinary boundaries, but invite only contributors from a particular institution (such as U. Nottingham). Some are run by libraries, others by academic units, others still by particular individuals. Some restrict contributions by processes such as peer-review, others only "lightly review" for appropriateness of topic. One could demand copyright transfer from the contributors, as many traditional academic journals do, though the norm currently seems to be to allow the author to retain copyright. One particularly "sticky" problem has been posting to an eprint archive articles that have already been published in traditional print journals, or that the author ultimately wants to publish in a traditional print journal. Up to just a couple years ago, traditional journal publishers seemed to believe they could fight the internet trend in scholarly communication by simply refusing to consider articles that had previously appeared on the internet. A combination of public pressure and their own inability to develop guidelines that are enforceable and make a modicum of sense has led to a considerable loosening of publication policies of late. Although there is a great diversity in detail, a model that is currently quite popular is to allow authors to post eprints of published articles to their personal websites, but not to "third-party" websites such as eprint archives. Of course, it is quite easy to "work around" such a policy by posting the article to one's personal website, and then posting the abstract and a hyperlink to the full text on an eprint archive.

Since I know my own History & Theory of Psychology Eprint Archive (or HTP Prints) best, let me tell you a little about how it has worked in the relatively short time that it has been in operation. Users have deposited document at about the rate of nearly one per week since the archive was fully operational in Sept 2001. Some of the documents are reprints of articles previously published in peer-review print journals. Some are reprints from relatively obscure journals, bulletins, newsletters, and the like. Some are write-ups of conference presentations. Some are entirely new documents. In all cases, the documents receive much better exposure on the website than they would in print form. I do not subject contributions to peer review, though I do scan them for appropriateness of topic, and contributors have to indicate at the time of deposit whether their documents have been peer reviewed elsewhere, so that their readers will know. Most of the documents are in the form of traditional journal articles -- many of us hardly know how to write anything else anymore so dominant had the format become -- but a few documents have been deposited that do not fit into that mold, but are quite valuable to researchers nonetheless. One example is an annotated bibliography of history of psychology textbooks dating from the present back through to the 1880s. There has been a fair bit of commentary and counter-commentary with respect to some documents. One of the nice things is that these discussions happen over a matter of weeks, or even days, while the original article is still fresh in readers minds, rather than over a period of many months as is typical in traditional print journals. Contributors must go through a short registration process before depositing their first document. I fear this may have put off some who might have otherwise contributed. It is important to have some idea of who is contributing, however, and to be able to contact them if necessary.

Users who only intend to read documents on the site need not register. They can either browse the site by subject or search it by author, title, keyword, or a variety of other parameters. The site now receives over 1700 visits and 6000-7000 page hits every month. The majority of hits originate from the U.S. and Canada, but there are many from Europe, Australia/New Zealand, South America, and even a few from Asia and Africa. The typical user spends less than 10 minutes on the site -- often less than five -- viewing pages for less than a minute each on average. I take this as evidence that they are able to find what they want relatively efficiently, and then download it for reading (rather than reading on-line).

There are many details that would probably be better-handled though question-and-answer than by my attempting to foresee them all. For now, let me say simply that HTP Prints is certainly wide enough in its scope to include research on the history of mental health authored by the people here at this seminar, and I invite you all to do so in the near future.

 

http://htpprints.yorku.ca/