Preprint Servers: Pushing the Envelope of Electronic Scholarly Publishing

By Tomaiuolo, Nicholas G. | Searcher, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Preprint Servers: Pushing the Envelope of Electronic Scholarly Publishing


Tomaiuolo, Nicholas G., Searcher


Searchers working in academic and corporate environments, as well as those working with the general public, are well aware of their options for identifying information from published sources. Subscriptions and/or pay-as-you-search options to databases from the shortlist of venerable vendors -- Dialog, EBSCO, OCLC, Ovid, and STN International -- will yield data from estimable publications such as the Journal of Organic Chemistry, IEEE Transactions on Nuclear Science, Neuropsychopharmacology, Annals of Operations Research, and Boundary-Layer Meteorology. Large libraries may subscribe to digital arrays of publications from commercial scholarly publishers such as Elsevier Science Direct or Academic Press' IDEAL.

Although traditional database searching prevails as the initial strategy for locating scientific information, searchers for scholarly work these days must expand their searching beyond traditional services. Resources known as "Preprint Servers," vital for finding information in the sciences and, more recently, the humanities and social sciences, not only facilitate location of information to answer today's questions, but also indicate a critical emerging trend toward rapid research communication in the electronic environment.

Consulting with peers has traditionally dominated the way researchers gather information. Those peers often identify proposed publications. Electronic preprints allow access to information without the time lag inherent in traditional publishing. The immediacy of electronic preprint dissemination may also foster a richer collegial interchange. But the inverse could be true also: Researchers may become so accustomed to computer-presented information that interaction may seem superfluous.

Defining Preprints

The term "preprint" most often refers to a manuscript that has gone through a peer-review process and now awaits publication in a traditional journal. A preprint accessible over the Web may also be referred to as an "e-print." Preprints also cover papers that authors have submitted for journal publication, but for which no publication decision has been reached, or even papers electronically posted for peer consideration and comment before submission for publication. In fact, preprints can also be documents that have not been submitted to any journal.

The U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Scientific and Technical Information defines a preprint as "a document in pre-publication status, particularly an article submitted to a journal for publication" [1]. The American Physical Society expands this, indicating that the concept of e-prints includes any electronic work circulated by the author outside of the traditional publishing environment [2]. In some subjects, where rapid transmission of knowledge is critical, electronic dissemination of preprints is an absolute necessity with subsequent traditional publication becoming almost a formality. In mathematics and physics, for example, formal publication provides archiving, which serves more to remind the scholarly community of the paper's initial appearance. Ultimately, formal publication serves as a vehicle to support the standing of the author [3].

The History of Preprints

Not long ago scholarly communication involved mail, fax, or more recently, anonymous FTP, gopher, and electronic mail. Although these methods of sharing information are still used, it is easier, quicker, and less expensive to post papers on the World Wide Web for reference, review, and comments. While traditional production and publication of documents require a significant investment of time, materials, and money, placing a preprint on the World Wide Web involves no printing costs and practically no distribution costs. Usually all you need is access to any program that can generate an HTML document and a Web server.

Paul Ginsparg, a physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, developed the first preprint archive in August 1991 [see Figure 1 at left] .

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Preprint Servers: Pushing the Envelope of Electronic Scholarly Publishing
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