UNESCO, Paris, 19-23 February 1996


By: Roger Elliott

This conference of experts on “Electronic Publishing in Science” was convened by ICSU and UNESCO to discuss the broad range of problems and opportunities presented by the new technologies and to advise the scientific community in general about the range of options available for the future. The partnership was highly appropriate since ICSU has direct links to Learned Societies and National Academies while UNESCO can communicate directly with National Governments and their agencies. The participants, who numbered some 150, were drawn not only from the scientific community but also included others directly involved in the provision of scientific information such as publishers and librarians. It also contained people belonging to all three groups from across a broad spread of developing countries who brought direct experience of the impact of these changes on the scientific community worldwide.

There is no doubt that the scientific information chain is in crisis. It is overburdened by an ever increasing flow of scientific information driven in part by the “publish or perish” philosophy created by the policies of the funding agencies. It is also increasingly fragmented as more and more scientific journals are created to accommodate the increasing specializations across all fields. This expansion is becoming too expensive to contain so that now even the greatest libraries are unable to encompass the whole range of publications in major scientific fields. It is therefore clear that the system must be modified and electronic publishing provides a possible answer. But we need to be sure that it will meet the needs of all scientists worldwide and this will require investment in an infrastructure as well as new modes of working. The question of its relative costs remains open and the meeting could reach no consensus about the real finances of mainstream electronic publishing. This depends in part on the extent of the added value which was regarded as necessary. What is clear is that it would not be cheaper if it was taken as an add-on to the normal print on paper distribution so that libraries would need to carry both. It was therefore concluded that we needed to envisage an entirely new regime driven by electronic publishing as the primary means of the distribution of scientific information.

The opportunities presented by electronic publishing will not be achieved if they are regarded as versions of the old paradigm. In addition to the improved visibility and transparency of electronic material it is certain that much extra value can be added through improved indexing and search possibilities and through hypertext linkages to other material.

In hearing talks on the current state of various projects it became clear that there was a diversity of needs and solutions. These were for example special in data rich subjects such as crystallography where computer generated experimental data can be passed directly into a database and in other fields like the human Genome project. At the other end of the spectrum idea rich subjects such as high energy physics have rather different needs. It seemed likely that the solution to these problems would lie in mixed systems. Bulletin Boards and Homepages where material could be freely posted play a role similar to that currently held by preprints. In a subject like high energy physics where preprints have long played a central role in the rapid distribution of new results, the Los Alamos (Ginsparg) Archive was already playing a significant role and was being developed with an extended remit. However, all science required the eventual discipline of peer review carrying the authority of a learned society or the scientific editorial board of a commercial publisher. The conference was overwhelmingly of the view that strict peer review should be applied to all scientific material submitted for publication in electronic journals so as to yield definitive authenticated and dated versions of papers and data. The idea was floated that in some subjects there might be a central bulletin board to receive preprints in standard format and that the material would then be sent to learned societies for such review before being passed into specific journals.

If these kind of solutions were to become the norm various actions are needed by the community for them to work fairly and efficiently. The first essential is an appropriate infrastructure. While the local equipment both for user and provider must no doubt be obtained from specific funding sources there was a strongly held view that the networks must remain centrally funded so that they were effectively free to the user. Recent experience shows that a large increase in network use by other players can swamp and delay the exchange of scientific information. There was a universal view that the scientific component requires a dedicated share of the transmission capability so that scientific data traffic receives an appropriate priority. This is necessary for scientists in all countries and it is hoped that the international bodies will promote the availability of such access across the developing world. In addition a set of basic skills is required by all scientific users and this will only be achieved if all receive training in the use of libraries and other information resources in the electronic environment, preferably at undergraduate level. In addition scientific authors will need to adopt appropriate methods of working. The present form of publication through scientific journals has assumed a traditional form which is widely understood. New codes of practice and of ethics will be necessary in the new environment.

Beyond the provision of the infrastructure the creation of electronic journals requires an investment on the part of the publisher and therefore some reimbursement for their use. There are several models which can be related to current experience with traditional journals. The first is an extension of the concept of page charges in which the author, or more specifically the funding agency sponsoring the research, pays the cost of its dissemination. Although this method has fallen out of favour in recent years because of tighter research budgets it has particular advantages in the electronic environment where control of downstream use over the network is particularly difficult. It would also restrain unnecessary publication on the principle that ``the polluter pays''. On the other hand it would discriminate against those whose research was poorly funded, and it would certainly require a culture change since the charges would inevitably be significantly greater than those charged at present which cover only part of the costs. A second and more familiar model is that of a site licence. This is basically similar to the present situation since a hard copy once purchased by a library can be used by all members of that institution. A site licence would allow similar use of electronic material for a prescribed body of persons, but would in principle prevent dissemination outside that group. Finally there is the form of “pay by drink, rather than bottle” where individual access to a database is charged. This might be regarded as an extension of the current document supply system, but in an extended form would distort current practice and funding patterns. For these reasons many learned societies are currently experimenting with the site licence idea.

The whole question of payment is related to the way in which the doctrine of ``fair use'' can be applied in the electronic environment. Its original concept has already been modified through the advent of photocopying and the ease with which copies of electronic material can be made and distributed raises difficult issues. On the other hand the scientist, whose primary interest is in maximum dissemination, is unlikely to wish that the copying of his work by colleagues should be restrained in the interests of obtaining a monetary return.

Another area which was extensively discussed was the nature of the standards required to optimize the efficiency of a new system. It was generally agreed that electronically published documents would need a system of universal identifiers. In order to maintain ready access and a good quality of search the addition of meta-data was desirable. This provides document tags that delineate the format, structure, and content and are helpful in assisting with the organization, search, and retrieval functions in large databases. If libraries are to hold vast quantities of data in this new form they will need the assistance of publishers in providing a standard format.

The conference was also clear that scientific information in electronic form would need to be archived just as rigorously as has occurred with print on paper material. It is only necessary to look at the references of any article to indicate how far back in time these go. But it is unlikely that archiving over an extended period is commercially viable and it will therefore have to be carried out by some centrally funded agency. In the past libraries have performed this traditional function, assisted in most developed countries by the concept of ``legal deposit''. In the future scientific learned societies might have an important role to play while the concept of legal deposit of electronic material needs further investigation by national governments. Since the geographical location of electronic material is less clearly defined it may be that an international structure is required.

One final range of issues which was addressed by the conference related to the question of how scientific publications fitted into international regulatory regimes. Scientific information is different because, while it has commercial value, it is in the main being passed round a loop from an author to a user community which are largely overlapping. The interests of all is maximum availability and facilitators such as publishers and librarians are ultimately judged by this criterion. It is therefore essential to see how copyright regimes act as a help rather than a hindrance for information transfer. It was emphasized by the experts in this field that the author holds the copyright and therefore can ultimately determine the way in which his work is to be used. In this connection the author's moral rights are unalienable. In the past publishers have driven a bargain requiring transfer of copyright, so that they could control its use, in exchange for the service of making it available as printed journals. The pattern of advantage is somewhat shifted by the new technologies. What seems certain is that techniques and organizations which allow the easy identification and transfer of rights will be essential. For the countries of the European Union current work to define a unified regime for copyright, fair use and related matters provides an opportunity to ensure that the special needs of the scientific community are taken into account.

The discussions resulted in the formulation of a number of recommendations aimed initially at ICSU and UNESCO and through them to the wider community. These are set out elsewhere in the proceedings of the conference. To implement these recommendations the skill and support of every participant will be essential. It will be for each of them to make these widely known within their own sphere of influence and to foster action in order to achieve the desired outcome. ICSU and UNESCO will act in a co-ordinating role but the tasks are so great and all-embracing that is essential to seek maximum co-operation world-wide.

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