Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

The Future of Scientific Journals: Lessons from the Past

Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

The Future of Scientific Journals: Lessons from the Past

Article excerpt

New technologies will soon bring fundamental changes to the process of scientific communication. To understand the path that these changes may take in the future, we need to take a careful look at the past. By examining the history of scientific communication, we can see how new technologies can interact with changes in communication forms. By looking at the complex roles that journals have traditionally played, we can better understand how and when journals may incorporate these new technologies. From these models we can project that electronic journals must meet the basic needs that print journals do, that they will initially maintain many of the features of traditional print journals, that their transformation may be driven by external forces, and that they will be slow in reaching their full potential.

It is clear to all involved--from the most astute students of electronic publishing to the most casual observers--that we are approaching a time when new information technologies will cause profound and elemental changes in scholarly communication. While these changes will eventually affect communication in all areas of scholarship, the sciences seem likely to be affected first. The scientific community has been receptive to the use of new technologies in everything from genetic sequencing to computer modeling of geological changes. Much of the infrastructure needed to support electronic journals is in place, with widespread availability of individual workstations, networks, and a technologically sophisticated user group. At the same time, other incentives--to decrease publication lags, reduce costs, and incorporate new kinds of data--are growing.

Despite these factors, the preeminent form of scientific communication--the scientific journal--has remained largely impervious to the force of new technologies. Peer-reviewed science jounals, presented to readers in an electronic form are still rare. It is true that the internal processing of the texts in science journals has been transformed by automation, yet the final version of these texts shows little evidence of these changes. It is true that bulletin boards and listservs abound on the Internet, yet true electronic journals are far less common, and refereed ones almost nonexistent. Recent estimates indicate that there were 110 scholarly electronic journals in 1991 and 240 in 1993.(1) While the recent rate of growth may seem impressive, the numbers are still low. What are the inhibiting factors that have prevented the full integration of new technologies into the scientific publishing process? What is the prognosis for the future? The answerws to these questions may lie as much in the past as in the future.

We frequently have heard comparisons of early electronic publications with early printed works, which retained many of the conventions used in manuscripts. Nevertheless, more detailed analyses of the advent of print technology, the long history of science journals, the sociology of science, and the study of scientific communication have often been ignored in developing projections about the future of science journals. What might be gained by such an examination of the past? First, we gain an understanding of how technologies can interact with new forms of communication and, second, we gain help in determining the essential functions traditionally performed by science journals. Both offer powerful models for understanding what the future may bring.

The Development of the Scientific Journal

The technological innovations essential to the development of the scientific journal were in place long before the journals themselves appeared in the mid seventeenth century. The most important of these, the introduction of print technology in the late fifteenth century, brought a wide range of changes to virtually every area of life. The widespread use of the printing press resulted in many changes in communication forms.(2) Included among these are a number of features of printed communication that we currently take for granted: the use of alphabetical order for organizing information, the title page, regularly numbered pages, punctuation marks, the indexing of individual works, and the ability to cite previously published works. …

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