Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Science Publishing and Science Libraries in the Internet Age1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Science Publishing and Science Libraries in the Internet Age1

Article excerpt

I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, of following his rational pursuits, of consulting the same authorities, of fathoming the most intricate inquiry as the richest man in the kingdom.

- Antonio Panizzi, the first librarian of the British Museum, 1836

THE INTERNET and the desktop computer have transformed the way science is practiced in virtually all fields, and the biomedical sciences have not been exempt. Today most scientists obtain, use, and produce information in ways that would have been unrecognizable twenty or thirty years ago. These changes have profoundly and most contentiously affected an aspect of science that is at the core of any scientist's life: the ways that we publish, disseminate, read, store, and retrieve research papers.

I will describe two of the most prominent features of this still evolving landscape - public digital libraries and "open access" publishing both of which depend on an extraordinary feature of the digital world: one copy of a text can suffice to provide it electronically, instantaneously, and without further costs to anyone at any time and in any place. It will become clear that I have been an enthusiastic proponent of both the new libraries and the new publishing methods for nearly a decade. As a result, this account will reflect my personal experiences and my passions for the subjects.

Public digital libraries of science are compendia of research articles, journals, and books; they constitute "databases" of published work that can be rapidly searched by anyone with an Internet connection. Unlike traditional public libraries, composed of paper copies of books and journals, their potential reach is infinite and thus threatening to publishers who depend on book sales and subscriptions. Because of this financial threat, we are still, despite recent progress, quite far from assembling open digital libraries that fulfill their potential as storehouses of knowledge.

The open access publishing movement seeks an even more radical change in the way scientific information is distributed. The goal is to deliver articles to all, immediately and freely, from an open access journal's Web site and from a public digital library. By making scientific information widely and swiftly available, open access publishers intend to be more useful than traditional publishers, who base their business on barriers to access, financing their journals with subscriptions for paper copies and for permission to view digital versions. Open access publishing, like subscription-based publishing, has real costs that must be paid - for reviewing, editing, producing, and formatting its journals. Because it abjures subscription barriers to access, open access publishing has adopted an alternative financial model. The costs are paid by the authors or, much more commonly, by the agencies that support the research.2

Viewed together, public digital libraries and open access publishing promise great benefits for science and society: equity, through universal and unfettered delivery of knowledge, mostly a product of public funding; more effective practice of science; and reduction in overall costs.

Everyone agrees that information technology is already fully capable of performing the tasks necessary to build extensive digital libraries of the existing biomedical literature and to convert publication practices to an open access mode. But, as will become apparent, significant obstacles have slowed the development of these means for enhancing the use of scientific texts. Traditional publishers have been concerned that digital libraries and a change in business models could entail a significant loss of revenues from subscriptions - reducing the profits for commercial publishers, whose margins now often exceed 30 percent, and affecting the ability of some scientific societies that publish journals to sponsor other worthwhile activities and meet staff payrolls. …

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