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Scientific Communication and the Dematerialization of Scholarship
(Released March 2007)

  by Douglas Brown  


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Many scientific research fields are becoming massively computationally intensive, handling and mining enormous datasets, a trend that is opening up possibilities for new methods of discovery, transdisciplinary and problem-centred investigation, and very large scale collaboration. Simultaneously, research practices at the frontier are changing rapidly as scientists and engineers are moving towards a research process of continuous refinement - writing, annotating and revising in near real time using the Internet - a tendency that may be further encouraged by the emergence of new, informal writing platforms and collaborative tools. These and related developments of the last decade may be contributing to the transformation of a system of scholarly research communication, based on the printed scholarly journal and the research article, that has been in place essentially unchanged for over three centuries. Following a backward glance at the beginnings of modern scientific communication, this article draws attention to this sudden, apparently dramatic shift, reviewing moves towards the development of 'cyberinfrastructure', a vision of a 'natively digital' scholarly communication system, the proliferation of open access institutional repositories, and the possibility of entirely new forms of scholarly communication as science itself shifts into a new phase in the 21st century.

Introduction: Beginnings

Portrait of Francis Bacon
Sir Francis Bacon
We have circuits or visits of divers principal cities of the kingdom; where, as it cometh to pass, we do publish such new profitable inventions as we think good. And we do also declare natural divinations of diseases, plagues, swarms of hurtful creatures, scarcity, tempests, earthquakes, great inundations, comets, temperature of the year, and divers other things; and we give counsel thereupon, what the people shall do for the prevention and remedy of them.
--Bacon, The New Atlantis (1627)

The Prophet of the Scientific Revolution
Sir Francis Bacon left behind a fragmentary but highly significant Utopian fantasy called The New Atlantis, (1) which seems to have been composed in his final years, following his calamitous fall from political grace in 1621. Through a tale of English mariners lost in the South Seas and encountering a remote but highly evolved island civilization, Bacon presents a vision of an ideal commonwealth, based around a cooperative scientific research establishment which takes as its purview the entire physical creation, adopting an experimental approach to fields ranging from astronomy to mechanics, agriculture and medicine. Famously wedded to 'utility' and opposed to 'armchair' metaphysical speculation of any kind, Bacon shows himself here as a practical visionary: at a time when proto-scientific investigation was widely seen as an occupation for isolated eccentrics, he envisages scientific research as the essential collaborative craft or industry, to be carried out on a grand scale; and, crucially, his knowledge-based society depends upon his college of the sciences circulating and actively publicizing its findings for the material benefit of all.

From Script to Print
As is well known, Bacon's ideas were the major inspiration for the formation of the Royal Society of London in 1660, an event which is now generally seen to mark a critical moment in the intellectual history of the West, as part of a fundamental epistemological shift away from reliance upon received authority and tradition. The Society was dedicated to the experimental method and open circulation of information and ideas, imagining an 'Empire of Learning' across national and linguistic barriers.

Portrait of Henry Oldenburg
Sir Henry Oldenburg
In a Baconian light, it is interesting to consider that a key figure in establishing the Society's early influence was the first Secretary, Henry Oldenburg (c.1617 - 1677), a German-born diplomat and natural philosopher whose social network included some of the finest philosophical and scientific minds in Europe. After several years of meticulously copying, annotating, translating, forwarding and re-forwarding the private correspondence of Society members, Oldenberg gained license to turn to the printing press in 1665. Philosophical Transactions, a monthly serial of which he now became founding editor and publisher, began life as a miscellany of speculative observations and early experimental findings, in a form designed to communicate not only with the membership but with all who 'delight in the advancement of Learning.' (2) The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn has argued that the published exchange over Isaac Newton's experiments in optics, which Oldenberg mediated in the early 1670s, gave birth to 'professional consensus science', (3) the principles of which have been built upon ever since.

Oldenberg's Shadow
In carefully devising formative methods for establishing what would now be called intellectual property rights of authors, as well as precedence in conducting research and presenting findings, standards of impartiality and a measure of quality control through an embryonic form of 'peer review', Oldenberg's collaborative spirit and entrepreneurial zeal can be credited with laying much of the groundwork for modern scholarly research communication. The letter eventually evolved into the more formal research article, and as knowledge grew increasingly specialized the following centuries saw the scholarly journal play an active role in helping to shape emergent disciplines.

Just two months before the first number of Philosophical Transactions was pulled from the press a cognate scholarly publication called Journal des Sçavans appeared in France; it is frequently remarked that from Newton's day, even through the rise of 'Big Science' and the large-scale commercialization of scholarly publishing following post-World War II, the essential functions and processes of the print and paper model remained unchanged for well over three centuries.

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