Laboratoire Cognition et Mouvement
URA CNRS 1166
Universite d'Aix Marseille II
13388 Marseille cedex 13, France
The American Physical Society's Task Force's Report on Electronic Information Systems (this volume) has sounded all the right chords: The idea is to develop a world scientific information system that will include all the formal scientific literature that has been, is being, and will be published, as well as the informal unpublished scientific communications that surround it, all in an electronic form that is searchable and accessible by any scientist anywhere in the world. The system would be furnished and administered by a collaborative effort among the scientists themselves through their learned societies, universities and libraries, and perhaps some publishers and data-base producers too. The Report discusses knowledgeably the technological state of the art in the software, hardware, and telecommunications resources that will be required to implement this ambitious system. Sounding the appropriate notes of caution about the economic and psychological factors that must be reckoned with, the Report confidently describes the electronic medium as poised for a series of revolutionary changes, changes that will be as beneficial as they are inevitable.
I am in complete agreement with this assessment and will add only one specific detail that I believe will play a much more significant role in hastening the revolution than what is implied by the APS Report. I will close with some reflections on the economics of information.
The APS Report notes (in section 2.2) "the blurring of distinctions between private [scientific/scholarly] communication (the "informal literature") and published articles (the "formal literature")" and devotes an entire section (4.5) to "Novel forms of "informal literature" " (namely,"preprints and comments/discussions"). Yet the implications of this seemingly minor detail do not appear to be appreciated in the Report's conventional (and distinctly nonrevolutionary) conclusion (section 4.3.2) that the "publication process will be completed by the journal or book publisher who will produce blocks of code for each document."
Why do scholars and scientists publish? Although there are no doubt careerists among their ranks whose primary interest is to enhance their resumes for professional advancement or perhaps even to market their words, surely the motive of the true scholar/scientist is to advance human inquiry. And, just as surely, such an enterprise is and always has been a collective, cumulative and collaborative one: Scholars publish in order to inform their peers of their findings and, equally important, to BE informed by them in turn, to INTERACT with them, in the cycles of reciprocal influence that constitute an evolving body of scholarly research. In a word, the purpose of scholarly publication is COMMUNICATION -- with peers, and for posterity.
Nor are scientists solipsistic aquarellists, portraying and displaying the world as they see it and then retiring to their studios to create another impression (I doubt that this hermetic stereotype applies even to painters): Scientists read and report results because they are communicating with one another, and communication is reciprocal. Scientific publication evolved out of scholarly letter-writing, in which thinkers corresponded informally, sharing and discussing their latest findings. Elsewhere (Harnad 1991) I have discussed how both the scope and the pace of this unique form of human interaction were shaped by the biological as well as the technological evolution of the media of communication. In a nutshell, the speed of thought was first adapted to the tempo of speech, then slowed to the rate of hand-writing and the turnaround time of letters; its scope was then enhanced by printing, but the turnaround time was still hopelessly out of phase with the speech-paced potential of creative thought.
And, until the recent advent of electronic communication, that's how it stood, with scholars waiting months, years or longer for the literature to respond to their work. How often in the history of human inquiry to date did the critical cycle of potential peer interaction fade out altogether, because by the time the other shoe finally dropped the author's mind was already focused on something else? No one can say, but this is precisely where the true revolutionary potential of the new medium lies: It can extend an individual's scholarly lifeline by an order of magnitude, giving a new lease on life to all those stillborn ideas and findings by making peer feedback available at a speed that is commensurate with the speed of thought (and the finite lifetime of a newborn brainchild), all at a global scale that is entirely without precedent in human communication.
So it is this rapid, global, interactive capability that is radically new. No other medium can offer an author the possibility of virtually instantaneous and ubiquitous interaction with his intended audience. Electronic publication is not just a more efficient implementation of paper publishing, it offers the possibility of a phase transition in the form (and hence also the content) of scholarly inquiry. Not only are the boundaries between "informal" and "formal" literature blurred, but scholarly inquiry has always been a continuum (Harnad 1990), from the inchoate birth of new ideas and findings to their (in principle) endless evolution as inquiry carries on.
So if I would fault the APS Report in any respect, it would be that it has not quite broken out of the papyrocentric view of publication that sees it all as hurtling toward a lapidary (printed) endstate, with the rest (preprints, commentaries) as merely useful adjuncts, or perhaps intermediate waystations on the canonical road. In reality, all of scholarly inquiry consists of waystations, and it was only certain incidental features of the technology and economics of that paper publication medium that happens to have prevailed since Gutenberg -- features that were not only inessential to inquiry but even inimical to it -- that gave the false impression that the purpose of it all was to arrive at a stationary state that was ready to be etched in stone.
Peer review (Harnad 1982, 1985, 1986) is often cited as the boundary between the informal and the formal literature, but peer review too is only a matter of degree. The "prestige hierarchy" among journals corresponds roughly with the level of rigor of their refereeing systems, and this is probably the true function of peer review: To serve as a quality filter according to which one can adjust how selectively one reads the literature relevant to one's interests and expertise. Another function of peer review is of course to give the author critical feedback in helping him report (and do) his work correctly and clearly. Both these refereeing functions can be implemented in the electronic medium too -- for both primary articles and comments -- and much more quickly and efficiently than in the paper medium (as noted in the APS Report).
I have described elsewhere some proposals for implementing peer review on the net in the form of hierarchies of peer-reviewed groups, with read/write access for the peers in a given specialty or subspecialty at level i (as in an academy of science) and read-only access for everyone else at level i-1 (but with the possibility of posting at one level higher through a read-write peer at that level -- the equivalent of an editorial board member in the present paper system), extending all the way down to an unrefereed vanity press at the bottom (Harnad 1990). It is also important to note -- in the context of a proposal for a "world scientific information system" -- that the boundaries between disciplines are not absolute ones either, not even the boundary between the sciences and the humanities: My own field of cognitive science fosters active collaboration and communication among psychologists, neuroscientists, biologists, computer scientists, linguists and philosophers. So it would probably be better to speak of a "world scholarly information system" -- and why not? That's exactly the kind of interconnectivity that an electronic network is equipped to provide. (I would accordingly contest the "discipline-specificity" of the economic model under discussion.)
The APS Report has already noted some of the potential benefits of the kind of monitoring of the directions and cross-currents of inquiry that a world scholarly information system would make possible: Unlike inert publication counts or even citation counts, sensitive measures of "air-time" and "flight-route" for new ideas and findings (how often they are accessed, by whom, and where they lead in the subsequent literature) would be helpful not only to those who are trying to evaluate the importance of a given scholar's contribution, but also to scholars trying to calibrate their reading more rationally, and to historians of ideas trying to make sense of the evolution of knowledge.
Also noted in the APS Report are the benefits of hypertext and "superbook" resources in such an integrated information system: Pointers would take one directly to the rest of the literature on key words or topics in a text, to the works it cites, and to the works that the works it cites cite, etc. But surely a key pointer would also be the electronic mail address of the AUTHOR of the work in question. In principle, not only all texts but also all their (current) creators would be interactively accessible to scientists and scholars. (At the same time, of course, powerful software filters could fine-tune not only how narrow or wide an access one wants to have to the literature, but how accessible one wants to make oneself; in other words, the medium itself offers the most rational prophylactics against information glut and junk mail.)
One last point about the specific detail that I have singled out and expanded here: If I am right that the real virtue of the new medium will turn out to be the unprecedented speed and scale of interactiveness it will make possible for scholars, then it is clear that this is the feature that needs to be focused upon in facilitating the revolution: The remarkable communicative potential of peer-reviewed electronic publication -- particularly in the unique form of peer feedback that I have dubbed "scholarly skywriting" -- must be explicitly demonstrated to the scholarly community so they can see for themselves what this medium can do that no other medium can. One such demonstration project is PSYCOLOQUY (Garfield 1991; Katz 1991, Wilson 1991), a refereed electronic journal sponsored by the American Psychological Association and specializing in "open peer commentary" on important current ideas and findings in psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience and related fields [Footnote]
I will close with some very general and informal reflections on the economics of electronic information by a nonexpert: Is the Net in principle different from a telephone? Does anyone charge for the CONTENT of my phone calls? Ah, but scholarly research reports are not just informal chit-chat, one might reply; a lot of work has been put into them, not only by the author, but by colleagues, referees, editors, etc. Moreover, unlike evanescent telephone conversations, the scholarly literature must be preserved and made accessible to all. All this costs money. Fine. Let the true expenses of using the medium and of producing and preserving its texts be made explicit, and then shouldered either by the "promotors" of scholarly productivity (universities, learned societies, government, society) or by the individual "consumers" of these texts (the scholars themselves). I happen to lean strongly toward the first alterative, because I think making scholarly information freely accessible to the individual scholar gratis makes for the best scholarship for all of humanity. But even if we do elect to make individual scholars pay for access to one another's work, let us make sure that we do not add on spurious surcharges that are merely holdovers from the obsolete papyrocentric model.
The refereeing of each original posting and each item of peer feedback on it is done very quickly, sometimes within a few hours of receipt, so as to maintain the momentum and interactiveness of this remarkable new medium, just as if each contribution were being written in the sky, for all peers to see and append to. Skywriting promises to bring the speed of scholarly communication much closer to the speed of thought, while adding to it a global scope and an interactive dimension that are without precedent in human communication, all conducted through the discipline of the written medium, monitored by peer review, and permanently archived for future reference.
The idea of "Scholarly Skywriting" is derived from a feature of a more conventional journal that Harnad has been editing for fifteen years, BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES (BBS). BBS publishes "target articles" on particularly important and controversial interdisciplinary topics together with "Open Peer Commentary" from 15-25 scholars from across specialties and around the world, followed by the author's response. BBS was itself modelled on CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY (see Harnad 1979, 1984a), a journal founded by the anthropologist Sol Tax, who in turn modelled it on the extreme participatory democratic practices of the native North American nations he studied,
BBS's Open Peer Commentary has become quite a useful and influential service in the biobehavioral sciences (see Harnad 1984b; Mahoney 1985; Drake 1986), but it is governed by the time constraints of conventional paper/print publication. Scholarly Skywriting in PSYCOLOQUY is intended especially for that "pilot" stage of scientific inquiry in which peer communication and feedback are still critically shaping the final outcome. Here is where the Net's speed, scope and interactiveness offer the possibility of a quantum jump for scholarly inquiry.
To subscribe to the Bitnet/Listserv version of PSYCOLOQUY (free), send the following one line email message to email@example.com: sub psyc Firstname Lastname (substituting your own first and last name); the message must originate from the email address at which you wish to receive PSYCOLOQUY. Subsequent postings are sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or to email@example.com. Alternatively, PSYCOLOQUY can be read directly as the newsgroup "sci.psychology.digest" at all sites that have access to Usenet.
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