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

  by Douglas Brown  


Key Citations



Towards a Natively Digital Model?


A New Vision
In concert with long-standing economic pressures, which have led academic librarians to speak of a 'Serials crisis' for many years, these mega-trends are now feeding into calls for structural reform of the formal scholarly communication system.

Herbert Van de Sompel of Los Alamos National Laboratory has presented a case for a 'natively digital' framework which would 'disaggregate' the traditional functions of scholarly publishing (standardly characterized as registration, certification, awareness, and archiving) and create a record that would aim at more closely capturing 'the dynamics of scholarship.' (9) Simeon Warner of Cornell has suggested that a proper record can no longer regard datasets, software, simulations or 'rich media' as supplementary materials or add-ons. With Van de Sompel, he proposes that the traditional journal article should be extended into a new multi-faceted communicative unit he calls 'complex documents', where the (now often extremely large) dataset is referenced and seamlessly available to the reader, with the provenance of each component of the extended document being recorded and the integrity of each 'ensured and verifiable'. (10) The infrastructure here would be a range of heterogeneous, distributed digital repositories woven into a fabric by standards of interoperability, allowing for the flexible reuse and aggregation of the scholarly 'digital objects' and their various parts (text, images, data, software and so on), and the possibility of 'overlay journals'.

After Ginsparg
Photo of Paul Ginsparg
Paul Ginsparg
Van de Sompel and Warner take account of changing research practices at the edge and the emergence of science mediated by networked resources and archives in a conscious effort to broaden discussion about Open Access to research beyond questions about the economics of electronic publication. They are inspired by the success of Paul Ginsparg's groundbreaking, physics-centred e-print server, founded at Los Alamos in 1991, now located at Cornell and known as arXiv. This site, which is mirrored in 17 countries, has now become the vital, global resource for access to results in medium and high energy physics (containing 400,814 e-print deposits in physics, mathematics, computer science, and quantitative biology as of January 2007). Researchers can deposit papers at any stage (pre-refereed working papers or formally peer reviewed 'post-prints'); most go on to appear in peer reviewed journals a year or two on. As a dissemination system, Ginsparg estimates that it operates at 'a factor of 100 - 1000 lower cost than a conventional peer-reviewed system'. (11)

Deposited papers are subjected to a minimal degree of screening before being made freely available. Some of arXiv's success may be predicated on the fact that high energy physics in particular enjoys a highly collaborative, communitarian pre-publication culture, in which findings are informally circulated or presented at conferences, and theses and working papers are subjected to rigorous internal review and external critique before submission for formal peer review. It is not unusual for collaborations here to involve over a hundred, even hundreds of, souls. One of the pioneers of Open Access, Stevan Harnad, has always taken the view that scientific inquiry is an ongoing process of continuous refinement, with the 'pre-publication continuum' by far the most interesting phase. (12) He has written: 'Learned inquiry is a continuum. Reports of its findings, both informal and formal, unrefereed and refereed, are milestones, not gravestones.' (13)

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