September 21, 2006

We Can Have a Better Academic Publishing System

Paul "arXiv" Ginsparg, evangelizing in the pages of the latest issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, under the rubric "As We May Read":

The e-print arXiv (http://arXiv.org/), initiated in August 1991, has effectively transformed the research communication infrastructure of multiple fields of physics and could play a prominent role in a unified set of global resources for physics, mathematics, and computer science. It has grown to contain >375,000 articles (as of July 2006), with >50,000 new submissions expected in calendar year 2006 and >40,000,000 full-text downloads per year. It is an international project, with dedicated mirror sites in 17 countries and collaborations with United States and foreign professional societies and other international organizations, and it has also provided a crucial lifeline for isolated researchers in developing countries...

The arXiv is entirely scientist driven: articles are deposited by researchers when they choose (either before, simultaneous with, or after peer review), and the articles are immediately available to researchers throughout the world. As a pure dissemination system, it operates at a factor of 100-1000 times lower in cost than a conventionally peer-reviewed system.... This is the real lesson of the move to electronic formats and distribution: not that everything should somehow be free, but that with many of the production tasks automatable or off-loadable to the authors, the editorial costs will then dominate the costs of an unreviewed distribution system by many orders of magnitude. ...

The site has never been a random Usenet newsgroup- or blogspace-like free-for-all. From the outset, arXiv.org relied on a variety of heuristic screening mechanisms ... to ensure insofar as possible that submissions are at least "of refereeable quality." This means that they satisfy the minimal criterion, that they would not be peremptorily rejected by any competent journal editor as nutty, offensive, or otherwise manifestly inappropriate, and they would instead at least in principle be suitable for review. These mechanisms are an important, if not essential, component of why readers find the arXiv site so useful. ...

The arXiv repository functions are flexible enough either to coexist with the preexisting publication system or to help it evolve into something better optimized for researcher needs. Although there are no comprehensive editorial operations administered by the site, the vast majority of the 50,000 new articles per year are nonetheless subject to some form of review, whether by journals, conference organizers, or thesis committees. Physics and astronomy journals have learned to take active advantage of the availability of the materials before journal publication ...

On the one-decade time scale, it is likely that more research communities will join some form of global unified archive system without the current partitioning and access restrictions familiar from the paper medium, for the simple reason that it is the best way to communicate knowledge and hence to create new knowledge. Ironically, it is also possible that the technology of the 21st century will allow the traditional players from a century ago, namely the professional societies and institutional libraries, to return to their dominant role in support of the research enterprise.

Ginsparg's title is a riff on Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think"; hopefully it will not take 48 years for these suggestions to be widely implemented.

Learned Folly

Posted by crshalizi at September 21, 2006 08:42 | permanent link

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