The Impact of Electronic publishing on the Academic Community
An international workshop organized by the Academia Europaea and the Wenner-Gren Foundation.
Edited by I. Butterworth.
Stockholm 16-19 March 1997
Published by Portland Press 1998 pp.171-175

Scientific Communication as an object of science [1].

Joost Kircz
Elsevier Science and WINS faculty University of Amsterdam

The object of scientific communication is the registration, evaluation, dissemination and archiving of human knowledge, facts and insights into our world for the benefit of mankind and the advancement of science. In the course of history the scientific community has shaped for itself a highly elaborate and fine-tuned environment characterised by established learned societies, publishers and libraries. To a large extent this development is a result of the printing press; only after its universal acceptance did large-scale scientific communication become possible. Now we are again experiencing a fundamental change in the capacity of information and knowledge handling in all its aspects.

It is interesting to guide the mind by listing a few characteristic features illustrating the important technological breakthrough of the printing press and relating it to the upcoming electronic future. This list relies heavily on the monumental work of Eisenstein [2].

1. The re-usability of old works or parts thereof

The printing press quickly induced massive reprinting of old and often, in the strict scientific sense, obsolete works. Although this introduced the birth of information overload with all its noise problems, it also unified the widely scattered knowledge and data repositories of humankind. As Eisenstein clearly points out, this general availability of the human intellectual heritage was needed since the universal mastering and assimilation of all previous knowledge was necessary before it could be properly surpassed.

At the moment we are already witnessing the trend of making all kinds of works available in electronic form. It indicates that in the electronic era, more than ever before, all previous scientific reporting, discussions and controversies become available as permanent sources for referencing, inspiration and, where needed, dismissal. It also implies that parts of old works can be integrated easily into new works. In this way a new period of general information re-evaluation can start.

2. An enormous growth in the dissemination of identical information

Next to the obvious rôle in advancing the education and general cultural level of society, printing also enhanced the integrity of the information as such, since deteriorating information due to heavy use, damage or aging can be checked against other copies of the same edition.

The availability of many identical copies allowed serious scientific discourse and exchange of views based on exactly the same information. This aspect became an essential ingredient of scientific development (including the concept of certification) and is, of course, an essential feature of electronic media too, now extended to sound, film, and colour.

An important related aspect is the use of books for self-study overtaking the old master-apprentice relationship. Knowledge is no longer coupled to a person but is easily available for the independent student. In an electronic environment "interactive textbooks" will complete this historical line with courses adaptable to the various levels and needs of the students and scientists. Re-use of information also means that it should be stored differently: less in the form of large comprehensive linear texts and more as a collection of units, modules, or objects which can be dynamically combined.

3. The emergence of standardization of presentation and judgement

In the course of this centuries long process well established standards for writing and reporting emerged, which now appear natural. Standards in the chain of events from scientific experiment to publication are now vested in research protocols, instructions to authors, and research funding proposal forms. The quality control and certification procedures find their expression in Journal names and Imprints of publishing houses. Although quality and certification requirements will prevail, standards will partly change in an electronic environment. Different standards and ways of presentation for different kinds of information will develop: for example, the presentation in electronic form of raw experimental data demands another standard of (manipulatable) presentation and judgement (e.g. in peer review protocols) than mathematical proofs or scientific claims.

4. The development of typography

Increasing familiarity with regularly numbered pages (in Arabic numbers), punctuation marks, section breaks, running heads, indices helped to order the thoughts of all readers, whatever their profession or craft. In an interesting essay, Katzen [3] analyses the development of typographical and lay-out structures in a case study of the Philosophical Transactions from 1665 until today. Highlighted text, running headlines, and all other techniques to identify different kinds of information in a printed text are now transcended in functional approaches such as the Standard Generalized Mark Up Language (SGML), where the information content is identified separately from its typographical representation. The ordering of information will change again, as page numbers cease to exist. New ways of structuring and referring to information are needed; this is the subject of my own research group.

  1. The possibility of error correction

The invention of errata allowed the continuing improvement of works in subsequent print runs. In an electronic environment one could argue that we errata become unnecessary, if a mistake is identified the electronic file can be updated. The file date or its version number will then inform the reader which file is the most recent and hence the correct one. In doing so, two problems have to be dealt with namely: (i) it is important to keep the very first (original) version to enable comparison with the corrected one(s), since the reader of the original version has to know what has been corrected in order to understand the correction; (ii) many errata are not simply misprints but comprise arguments or in-depth corrections. In such cases updating blurs the uniqueness of the original and hides possibly important discussion, in short, the scientific integrity is at stake. In such cases the erratum should be considered as a comment to a communication and hence should be appended permanently to the original instead of being integrated.
This aspect also points to the notion that collectively working on one article in an electronic environment does not necessarily lead to a single homogeneous text. Real integrated discussion can become the hallmark of a modular electronic article.

In the coming period we will experience again a complete overhaul of all characteristics of scientific information. In order to cope with this intriguing perspective we have to clearly dissect two types of problems that must be dealt with:
(i) The problems related to the introduction of the electronic medium as the replacement of paper for the existing culture of scientific information exchange.
(ii) The problems, or perhaps better the opportunities, the new medium gives us for introducing fundamental new forms and ways of scientific information exchange.

To paraphrase the US secretary of state during the Cold War, John Foster Dulles, in dealing with the flood of electronic possibilities we have to develop a policy of containment as well as roll back. The first set of problems mentioned deal with containment, the second set with a victorious roll-back.

Containment problems

(i) The established rôles of the scientific publication for author's and readers have to be addressed and clearly spelled out. A first overview is given by Kircz and Roosendaal [4]. It goes without saying that in an electronic environment at least the same level of registration quality, integrity and certification procedures must be guaranteed. Hence, clear rules on the status and reliability of electronic pre-prints have to be established.
(ii) Scientific publications cease to have a unique appearance (the printed article), given that the electronic format allows a great many ways of presentation depending on the readers wishes and technical capabilities. This leads to the need for development of clear standards for submission and storage in electronic form.
(iii) The capability and desire for integrating all scientific articles into coupled electronic archives also demands a clear structuring that allows re-use of articles or parts thereof independent of the actual level of technology. In addition, the structure must be broad enough to encompass all fields of science, medicine and humanities. Together with point 2 above, this directs us to an energetic development of document exchange languages such as SGML.
(iv) Since the scientific integrity and certification of the original (and each updated) version must be uniquely defined in an electronic archive (or library), standards for dating and electronic watermarking must emerge. This will enable future generations to follow trails in scientific discussions even if the documents evolve dynamically and more authors change and improve an electronically available text.
(v) The development of free text searching techniques will continue to be an essential aid in retrieving relevant information. A new balance has to be found between the possibilities of pre-coordination (SGML-tags, keyword and classification terms) and free text post-coordinating methods including user profiles for relevance ranking, etc.


Conquer the problems of the future

It is obvious that the linear essay-type scientific article is a typical product of print-on-paper technology. In electronic media that are intrinsically non-sequential, browsing and haphazard reading (as in a newspaper) is a natural form of use. Therefor, the structuring of scientific articles as such must be investigated. In our own research we analyse the possibility of a different modular build-up of science articles. Such a modular form enables the structuring of information in well-defined types of information (e.g. pure results, embedding of the research, theoretical models, claims and goals). This kind of structuring better contextualizes the information reported and will add to the quality of retrieval.

The integration of non-textual information as genuine knowledge representation (and not as "illustration to the text") demands not only a deep knowledge on picture, film, and sound storage and synchronizing, but also of new methods of search and retrieval based on motion, colour, and sound itself instead of textual descriptions in captions and legends. Non-textual information exchange is a research field in itself, one which the scientific community must pick up, just as it picked up the printing press and shaped it to its needs.


The electronic revolution in scientific knowledge representation and exchange is only partially a problem of casting the existing paper tradition into an electronic form. This is merely a technological trick which, although very successful and challenging, is only a shadow forecasting the real thing. The scientific community, including its publishers and libraries, have to prepare themselves for a new understanding of complementary methods of knowledge representation, each with its own standards and ways of fulfilling the requirements of integrity, certification, archiving, retrieving and re-use. At this moment, the scientific community is following a technological breakthrough, a course which has to be changed to one of exploring and exploiting the much wider capabilities of a multimedia environment, and all this again for a better understanding of the world and the advancement of science.


1. This contribution is closely related to an article recently published: Modularity: the next form of scientific information presentation? Journal of documentation 54(2), March 1998, pp.210-235.
2. Elizabeth L. Eisenstein. The printing press as an agent of change: Communications and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe. 2 Volumes. Cambridge Univ. Press. Cambridge, 1979.
3. May F. Katzen. The Changing Appearance of Research Journals in Science and Technology: an analysis and a case study. In: A.J. Meadows (ed.) Development of science publishing in Europe. Elsevier Science. publ. Amsterdam, 1980. pp. 177-214.
4. Joost G. Kircz and Hans E. Roosendaal. Understanding and shaping scientific information transfer. In: Dennis Shaw and Howard Moore (eds). Electronic publishing in science. Proceedings of the ICSU Press / UNESCO expert conference february 1996. Unesco Paris 1996. pp. 106-116.