Issues and Impacts of the Changing Nature of Scientific Communication : Optometry and Vision Science

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Issues and Impacts of the Changing Nature of Scientific Communication

Anton, Bette MLS, FAAO

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Optometry and Vision Science 80(6):p 403-410, June 2003.
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“Science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual.”

V. Bush 1

Sharing of scientific information is basic to scientific progress. At the core of scientific work are ideas and their exchange. Advances in scientific inquiry broaden scientific knowledge. As the sciences have increased in their share of the output of scholarly publications, economic stresses on the system of communication have threatened the continuity of scientific communication and progress. I would like to present an overview of the process of scientific communication, focusing on its recent history, noting problems and contradictions in the system that have created need for change, providing examples of some current initiatives for change, and discussing several issues and questions generated by new initiatives. Changes in scientific communication are occurring so rapidly that one has difficulty keeping abreast. At least once a week, and sometimes more frequently, a new initiative is announced. The information that I present reflects current practices as of late 2002.

I will avoid a detailed discussion of explicit technology. Although copyright issues are in many respects quite central to this discussion, an in-depth examination would be very lengthy. Therefore I will discuss copyright issues only briefly. For further discussion of copyright, see overviews found elsewhere. 2–4 Finally, while much of what I say can be applied to the humanities and social sciences, I will be addressing specifically scientific communication, and not those other fields.


What is scholarly communication? A convenient and broad definition is “…the social phenomenon whereby intellectual and creative activity is transmitted from one scholar to another.”5

At the core of scientific work are ideas and their exchange. Advances in scientific inquiry broaden scientific knowledge. It is generally accepted that communication is a fundamental part of scientific research and that scientists are interested in sharing their research. 6 Scientific communication supports the dissemination of research and provides an archive of past scientific research. In fact, it is the very nature of open communication that results in new science. Additionally, in the current system of career development of scientists the dissemination of research, primarily in the form of published journal articles, is required. 7

There are a number of players involved in the activity of scientific communication: the scientists/researchers/scholars; scientific societies; commercial publishers; and academic libraries and librarians. The commingling, or some might say entangling, relationships among these four major sets of players are what comprise scientific communication.

Over the past several hundred years, since the establishment of print, scientists have turned the results of their research into printed formats to distribute their ideas for discussion and exchange in the scientific community. The system that evolved in the late twentieth century can be described briefly as follows. Scientists, generally supported by tax dollars in the form of government or university support, work to discover and create scientific information. While means of informal communications, such as conferences, circulation of drafts and preprints, and even conversations among colleagues, are very important to scientific communication, the system that we understand today is based in a print model, the formal communication in a peer reviewed journal. The results of scientific findings are written and then submitted for publication. In exchange for the value of having work published, authors in most cases freely give the copyright to their intellectual property to commercial or society publishers, the “Faustian bargain” of scientists trading copyright for publication. 8 The publishers then sell the fruits of scientific research back to the institutions that create them, frequently for substantial profit.

Paper-based information and knowledge have given a strong role to publishers and to libraries. The publishers provide “value-added” services, for example, editing, typesetting, printing, distribution, and the provision of standards (volume and page numbering, citation information, etc.). All these pieces of the publication cycle add authority. That is, one generally assumes that articles in peer reviewed journals can be relied upon for the integrity of their information, within the limits of scientific progress. Libraries and librarians organize and preserve the historical scholarly record and provide for its access to other scholars. In the current model, institutional subscribers (i.e., libraries) pay premium prices for journal subscriptions, sometimes as much as several hundred percentage points above what personal subscribers pay. For example, in the U.S., the 2003 cost of a personal subscription to Vision Research is $302/year, while an institutional subscription is $3,052; the cost of a personal subscription to Journal of the Optical Society of America A is $88/year (print and online) and $1,371 for institutions. So while the idea of “free” exchange of information is inherent in the process of scientific communication, exchange in our current system is anything but free.

After World War II, government-funded research grew quickly, resulting in a greater volume of published articles. The number of commercial publishers began to grow, and with that growth, journal articles became commodities to be sold. Journal prices have run ahead of the GNP, beginning as far back as the mid-1960s. 9 As early as 1979, the National Enquiry into Scholarly Communication published its report recognizing many of the problems inherent in this interconnected system of communication. 10 As the situation has seemed to spiral out of control, there has been even closer scrutiny of the cycle.

By the late 1980s the problems experienced throughout this system were becoming severe. Since that time, the sciences have not only increased in their share of the output of scholarly publications, they have also accounted for the greatest increase in prices. 9 There are many factors involved in cost escalation. The amount of information has increased exponentially; one rule of thumb states that information is doubling every 4 years. 11 While this may or may not be an accurate estimation, there is no doubt that the amount of information is rapidly increasing. Also, there appears to be no argument against the data that suggest science journals account for approximately 29% of the total number of serials but 65% of libraries’ serials budgets. 9, 12 Scientific journals are frequently more expensive to produce because, for example, they use color diagrams and/or high quality photographs. The newer journals tend to be more specialized and have smaller subscription bases, making them more expensive; more specialized journals obviously have fewer readers, yet more pages result in higher production costs. Commercial publishers pass more costs on to subscribers than do professional society publishers. Finally, the problem is exacerbated by frequent mergers among the relatively few commercial publishing houses responsible for a concentration of science journals.

As library budgets have been reduced or remained static, cancellations have grown, placing extreme pressure on libraries; because publishers’ pricing models depend upon supply and demand, cancellations lead to further increases in subscription prices. The most recent statistics of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) show that between 1986 and 2001, journal expenditures among member institutions have increased 210%, the number of serials purchased have decreased by 5%, and the unit cost of journals has increased 215%. 12 Between 1996 and 2000, the average price of a commercially produced scientific journal increased almost 45%. 13

As the downward spiral continued and was exacerbated, discussions were taking place about the sustainability, or lack thereof, of traditional libraries. Although it may appear that the stakeholders that have the greatest need to control this spiral are libraries and librarians, scientists also must be concerned about this problem. The role of research libraries, as repositories of scientific knowledge, and of librarians, as organizers and providers of access to this knowledge, are central to the relationships of scientific communication. Librarians are well aware that continuity and full archives are essential for scientific communication and progress. Yet research libraries are no longer able to be repositories that can provide full archives to all of the scientific information scientists would wish to have. What has grown out of a system that was once practical, is one that now does not serve the function for which it was designed. The system of scientific communication has been driven perilously close to collapse. Universities and colleges continue to give their intellectual property to commercial publishers and professional societies and are then required to purchase it back at ever-higher prices. 11 Continued journal cancellations work against the goals of scientific communication and negatively impact the scientific record by limiting the dissemination of scientific information. Today the relationships among the four groups of players are rapidly changing and we are moving quickly into a new era, with an end that no one can clearly see, although possibilities abound.

Potential Solutions

By the 1990s, the ability to manipulate information in novel ways through rapid advances in technology, especially Internet and World Wide Web technology, accelerated the discussion of problems and possible solutions surrounding the crisis. The opportunities presented by technology suggested the development of new and exciting alternatives in scientific communication.

To a large extent, discussions of solutions focus on electronic publication, particularly electronic journals, as an alternative to print. Electronic publishing can take advantage of faster more powerful personal computers, Web publishing capabilities, easy transfer of documents, and direct communication between writer and reader. It provides the ability to manipulate data in new ways, for example, the ability to manipulate three-dimensional objects, to include moving images, or the use of hypertext to allow links to other related research materials in a variety of formats. Searching may be more efficient than with paper; both retrieval and integration of information may be improved. Printing, binding, and distribution costs are reduced. Rapid exchange of information among participants has the potential to escalate the development of ideas. We have entered a juncture in time that offers the opportunity for communication of scientific ideas in new ways—potentially free and certainly less expensive—with greater opportunities for wide dissemination, opportunities that first began with Gutenberg.

Late twentieth century technology has provided the possibility to separate intellectual property from the objects that hold them, the print journals. 9 As technology has brought change, an important parallel course, examining the reward system that currently exists, has been taking place at the very highest levels of university administrations and the scientific establishment. The very heart of the issue revolves around the answer to the question of who owns and controls intellectual property. Is it the scientists who produce it, the universities who promote research, the taxpayers who support universities and grant-funding agencies, or the publishers who provide value-added services? 6, 14


Through the realization that the old methods of scientific communication are not working, and the new ones, which have taken a profit-driven, commercial bent, are not in the best interests of science, several of the stakeholders have begun to develop alternatives. 14 New relationships for the dissemination of scientific information have been created. Some of these initiatives are described below.

Physics Preprint Server

One cannot speak of experiments in alternative forms of scientific communication without mentioning what probably was the earliest alternative offered, the physics e-print archive [] at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The archive was created in 1991 by Paul Ginsparg, a research physicist at the LANL, as an experiment among high energy particle physicists. For many years it remained at LANL, and in late 2001, when Ginsparg moved to Cornell University, the e-print archive moved with him to Cornell []. Its purpose was to circumvent perceived problems of publishing in research journals, and before long it became the primary means of disseminating information in this field. The original content of high energy particle physics has expanded to include all physics, pure mathematics, and nonlinear sciences. 15 Today the physics e-print archive serves as a model of exchange of scientific information, receiving two million visits each week (roughly two-thirds of which are from outside the United States) 16; there were approximately 33,000 new submissions in 2001. The archive is supported by less than a half million dollars each year, from the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and now Cornell University (previously LANL). Access to the server is free to users and the full text of e-prints, reports of the most recent developments, and research in these fields, are publicly available. Submissions are processed, archived, and indexed automatically, and are made available by email, anonymous ftp, and World Wide Web from the main and mirror sites. Subscribers are automatically emailed abstracts of new submissions through an unstaffed and unsupported system. Earlier drafts of submissions are usually replaced by edited versions. 17, 18 The availability of this archive is of particular benefit to physicists who are geographically remote and/or at small, less financially well-to-do institutions. The existence of the archive helps to encourage and promote the development of research in those institutions and fosters multi-national cooperation.

In this model, the electronic e-prints represent the “raw literature” and final publication of articles provides value-added services. 19 It should be noted that physicists readily accepted this model because they had, since the 1970s, been distributing preprints in paper format. Ginsparg’s electronic distribution made the process much more efficient. In other words, electronic distribution easily matched a preexisting culture.

PubMed Central and BioMed Central

The idea of PubMed Central [] was first introduced in mid-1999 by Harold Varmus, former director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). In its original conception, PubMed Central (PMC) was meant to be similar to the physics model discussed above. 20 PMC was slow to pick up steam, and has engendered hot debate. The most vociferous opposition has come from publishers, particularly professional society publishers, who feel that their existence and profit base are under threat. Some of the arguments against open archives have been that there is a danger in having non-peer reviewed biomedical literature available; that multiple versions of articles will lead to confusion, particularly on the part of healthcare consumers; that ownership of the work will be in doubt; and that journals may not publish work when earlier versions have been published on the Web. 21, 22

Today PMC is a joint venture, funded by the NIH, and being developed by the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). PMC content remains limited, and includes relatively few journals. The prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) was among the first to sign on with PubMed Central, its editor recognizing PMC as a “major advance for science.”23 Those in favor point to the great success of PubMed, the National Library of Medicine’s free MEDLINE, and the NIH database, GenBank, containing an annotated collection of all publicly available DNA sequences. These services, they argue, have only served to move scientific inquiry forward. 24–26

PMC, if it can generate sufficient numbers of participating publishers, has the potential to make a positive impact on the communication of biomedical information by providing an open archive. This will be especially useful, as has been the physics e-print server, to scientists in developing countries and at small research institutions. PMC has made several compromises to address publishers’ concerns. In its original conception, Varmus suggested that PMC also include a section of non-peer reviewed primary research, similar to the physics e-print server model. PNAS signed on only after it was agreed that PMC would accept only peer reviewed materials. 23 Publishers’ copyright provisions on commercial use of published material remains intact and journals are providing content free, but only after a delay that will protect the subscription base of individual journals. In the case of PNAS, the delay is 6 months. 25

In addition to the professional society journals, PMC partners with BioMed Central [], a unique electronic-only publisher of biomedical journals, including BMC Ophthalmology [–2415/]. BioMed Central’s publishing policies allow for rapid distribution of scientific research. All submissions are peer reviewed and published within 24 hours of acceptance, and time from submission to publication is 6 to 8 weeks. BioMed Central earns money through advertising and subscriptions to value-added features, which include reviews, commentaries, navigation, and interpretation tools. Effective 2002, BMC has begun charging a $500 processing charge for articles accepted for publication, while access to the basic journals remains free. This fee is waived for authors from developing countries or in cases of hardship. A very important feature of BioMed Central is that authors maintain copyright and editorial control of their writing. All of these features support the goal of providing fast and broad distribution of research results.

In the fall of 2000, an initiative was begun to have scientists sign an open letter in support of a “Public Library of Science” []. The letter states that the record of scientific research should be publicly owned, and signatories pledge they will publish in, edit or review for, and personally subscribe only to those journals that agree to make their work available through PubMed Central, creating a comprehensive archive of scientific research freely available 6 months after initial publication. By mid-2002, approximately 31,000 scientists in 182 countries had signed this letter. Thus publishers, rather than retaining perpetual copyright to published articles, would control those articles for 6 months only. Unsurprisingly, publishers, and especially commercial publishers cast doubts on the viability of such a proposal. Also, unsurprisingly, there has thus far been insignificant impact on the commercial publishing industry; and only a handful of journals have agreed to archive their articles in PubMed Central. To face this problem, beginning in 2003, the organizers expect to create a non-profit publisher “operated by scientists, for the benefit of science and the public,…[to] establish a new model for scientific publishing.”27

Scholarly Publishing and Academic Research Coalition

Begun in 1998 by the Association for Research Libraries (ARL), the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Research Coalition (SPARC) [] grew as a result of the crisis in scientific publishing. Its goals are directed at the large issues in scholarly publishing: to bring down the cost of the production and distribution of scholarly journals; to address copyright and fair use issues; and to use technology to improve the process of scholarly communication. SPARC aims to create a more competitive scholarly communication marketplace where the cost of journal acquisition and use is reduced, and to reward publishers who are responsive to customer needs. A particular focus of SPARC is to partner with scientific societies.

SPARC itself has created several initiatives. In January 2001, SPARC launched one such initiative, its “Declaration of Independence” from commercial publishers. The intent of this initiative is to become independent from publishers who do not serve the interests of the scientific community. Declaring Independence addresses itself to editors of scientific journals, and provides a means of evaluating journals as to whether or not they serve the interest of the dissemination of scientific information. It further offers very detailed suggestions for creating alternatives to expensive scientific journals, including the publication of a “how-to: manual.”28, 29

SPARC almost weekly announces new partnerships that promote the development of new models of scientific communication. SPARC has been welcomed by scientists and librarians and SPARC sponsored journals have been very successful. Some data show that for cases in which SPARC has partnered to form journals that compete with commercial ones, the rate of inflation of the latter has slowed significantly. 30 SPARC is demonstrating the ability to provide the leadership and management that is necessary to assure the success of new models of scholarly publication.

This section has briefly highlighted a few current and representative initiatives in scientific publication that attempt to serve the interests of scientific communication. There are other such initiatives developing so rapidly that it becomes difficult to keep track. In March 2001, the International Mathematics Union made a “Call to All Mathematicians” calling for more open access to the mathematical literature by making as much of their own work as possible available electronically []. In early 2002, the National Institutes of Health issued a Draft Statement on Sharing Research Data [] stating that NIH-supported studies should include the expectation for timely release and sharing among researchers of final research data. This policy is expected to go into effect January 1, 2003. In the field of vision, there are two, relatively new, peer reviewed journals created to accomplish goals similar to those of BioMed Central. Molecular Vision [], published since 1995, “…is published by scientists for scientists.” A newer, ARVO-published, all electronic peer-reviewed journal, Journal of Vision [], is also available free on the Internet. Both of these journals allow for rapid publication and promote the use of web enhancements such as multimedia and hyperlinks. It is in the best long-term interest of the scientific community to support efforts such as these. Viewed as a whole, what is significant about all of these initiatives is that they aim to provide a stable environment for electronic publishing and offer exciting alternatives to the traditional model of scientific communication.

Unresolved Issues

All of these initiatives have much promise for open and relatively “free” scientific communication. They provide many answers among which we have to resolve the differences. They also create and raise questions to which we do not necessarily have answers.

Peer Review

Peer review is the system that assures the integrity of published data, making this an issue of importance to both writers and readers that cannot be overly stressed. One objection to Web-based open publishing, such as the preprint model, has been to the appearance of unfiltered or unreviewed work. Publishers claim that the peer review process is what makes the information valuable. 21 There are equally strong arguments for the open preprint model that suggests that other forces will control the quality of information and serve as de facto peer review. The latter argument states that if an entire scientific community reads a work, a very dynamic form of review takes place. Immediate response from colleagues to authors and among readers, it has been suggested, will promote discussion and development of new ideas more quickly. 14 In any case, it is clear that the authority of Web-based publication must be assured and scientists will have to be guaranteed that some kind of peer review or its equivalent has been integrated into new models of scientific communication. Screening mechanisms must be developed, and if multiple versions of articles are available, they must include disclaimers noting which version has been peer reviewed, with the latter version being the “official” one. 31, 32 It is also likely that the exact form of peer review may vary by discipline.


Who will be responsible for archiving and what will be its cost? In the electronic environment, journals are licensed rather than sold and, in some cases, site licenses for electronic information do not guarantee perpetual access to materials should a license not be renewed. Such terms are a clear threat to the scientific record. For scientific knowledge to advance, the knowledge base must remain available in perpetuity. Without a means of archiving digital information, knowledge has the potential to be eroded or lost. This is a question that is far from being solved, as libraries, the traditional repositories of scientific information no longer necessarily own all journals and publishers show few signs of being willing to take on this important responsibility. Nevertheless, it is much too early to draw any conclusions. An additional problem yet to be solved is the preservation and longevity of digital information. Who will assure that digital knowledge will be migrated from earlier storage formats to make it usable by future generations? Is this a responsibility of libraries? If so, how and by whom will this archiving be funded? It is promising that during the past 18 months, the issue of archiving has begun to be addressed on a number of fronts. 33–36

Access and Cost

Dissemination of information is basic to scientific communication and progress. Access to information must be assured in any new models that are adopted and cannot be limited only to those institutions that can afford the cost of licensing electronic resources, or can provide high speed networks and advanced hardware and software. All scientists, whatever their institutional affiliation or country, must have access to the latest scientific research. To a large degree the issue of access is dependent upon the cost of the ever-expanding body of scientific information. To promote excellence in research, low cost, and relatively open access should be the primary concern of all the new models developed. Recognition of this problem—and perhaps in part a reaction to the threat of noncommercial alternatives—is reflected in a recent move by commercial publishers of several important biomedical journals. Beginning in January 2002, in response to a request by the World Health Organization, these publishers began offering their journals at reduced costs to developing countries. 37, 38 Even at these reduced prices, however, the costs may be beyond what some of these countries are able to pay.

Intellectual Property Rights, Copyright and Fair Use

In our current system, in which scientists are both the producers and users of research, copyright serves contradictory purposes. Copyright protects scientists as users by allowing them to retain the ability to use their own intellectual property in teaching and future research. Copyright, however, restricts the ability of others to use certain works, and may work against the interests of scientific progress. Several of the models proposed work on the assumption that current copyright practices are no longer adequate, nor do they serve the scientific community well. 4, 6, 9 This is an important balance to the attempt by some commercial publishers to place even firmer restrictions on electronic information. An alarming trend, beginning in early 2001, and continuing at present, has been for a number of publishers to raise the cost of electronic journals far beyond what is necessary for simple cost recovery. This problem has become even more acute as a result of laws that further restrict electronic material.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was signed into law in 1998. Because it strongly protects copyright holders of digital works, the great benefit of the DMCA derives to commercial copyright holders. 39 In fact, passage of the DMCA was championed by corporate copyright holders and opposed by library associations, among other groups. In an era when so many new resources are in electronic format, the DMCA poses a threat to traditional fair use exemptions of copyrighted materials. For example, if a library subscribes to a journal in electronic format, it may be prohibited from providing the content to another library in the form of interlibrary loan, a traditional form of exchange among libraries for the benefit of their users. The DMCA also provides for a longer term of copyright for digital materials, thus restricting when materials enter the public domain. 40 As such, the DMCA threatens open, free, and innovative scientific communication and thus scientific progress.

A second threat to the free and open exchange of scientific information is the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (UCITA). UCITA, proposed contract law that has been introduced in several states beginning in 1999, was developed to manage such goods as electronic databases, software, and other information in digital formats. As with the DMCA, the primary proponents of the law are commercial publishers and software producers. Because purchasers of electronic resources license rather than purchase such materials, many restrictions will apply, some of which may not even be known until one purchases or uses such material. 41 And, as with the DMCA, the ability of libraries to provide services in support of scientific communication and knowledge enhancement, such as interlibrary loan, archiving, and preservation, are threatened by the provisions of UCITA.

Copyright management is an important focus of the models described above. An alternative model in which universities and scientists assume joint ownership of intellectual property, with authors retaining most rights, would be a giant step forward. This will require the development of a consensus and concerted action by many of the stakeholders. Fortunately, universities are beginning to examine those policies that allow their intellectual property to be given away to publishers, only to be sold back to them, in an inflationary, unsustainable spiral. For example, Harvard University has suggested a policy that for Harvard-produced works, the University should retain copyright and “…the public benefit should take precedence over financial gain, either by the University or the individual scholar.”6 The California Digital Library (CDL), with its eScholarship initiative [], is attempting to help authors retain copyright for works created by members of the University of California system. And in early November 2002, the MIT libraries joined with Hewlett Packard to created DSpace, a digital space where faculty can submit, maintain, and make available on the web, all of their institution’s intellectual output. 42 DSpace uses open-source software that is available to other institutions.

In these models, the university and library together become the publisher for scholarly information, as well as a repository for access and dissemination. They thus provide a means for faculty to publish and at the same time retain the rights to their own intellectual property.

Reward Systems

The current system of scientific communication depends upon publication, and the reward for individual scientists comes as advancement, salary, and prestige. This has resulted in a profusion of publications. For scientists, researchers, and academics then, the success or failure of accepting new forms of communication will be intimately entwined with the reward system of promotion and tenure. Acceptance of alternative forms of communication will rely on the creation of different models in their reward systems. A strong alternative, as described above, is the open archive model as a rapid means of disseminating research. Open access archives, however, do not necessarily support authors’ needs for endorsement that leads to professional advancement. For new systems to successfully replace the old ones, these social and economic issues must be factored in and solutions found. Scientists should pay careful attention to the publications to which they submit their work, and institutions must examine the current policies and reward systems and promote changes, as necessary.

Scientific Societies

Professional societies present their own problems. Professional societies have been a primary conduit by which scientists have disseminated their ideas, in large part through publication of relatively low cost journals. 43 Societies contribute to the development of knowledge and provide direct contact among scientists in their own fields. Societies play an extremely important role in the dissemination of scientific information, are inherently more attuned to the needs of the communities they serve, and less driven by the profit motive than commercial publishers. As such, they must be supported. Because their very existence relies more on traditional means of communication, some professional societies have been among those most opposed to new models. One possible partnership model that would enhance and promote scientific communication might be for academic institutions to assume some of the costs of publication. One suggestion that has been made is for societies to not directly be involved in publication, but to perhaps be responsible for peer review of electronically published works and to give their seal of approval to quality work. 43


In the matter of economics, there are differences of opinion. Commercial publishers have taken information, created for the public good, and have made it a private asset. Not surprisingly, many publishers, both commercial and society, object and take exception to the claims that electronic publishing is much less expensive than paper publishing. They insist that the cost of editing and whatever value is added to publication are not significantly less and in fact are very much the same no matter what the medium of the final product. 44 Some publishers make the argument that electronic publishing offers more value-added features and justify increased cost this way. On the other side, paper publication is viewed as allowing “gate keeping, and…profit gouging that are key characteristics of the paper-based information age.”45 In this view, electronic publishing is seen as significantly less expensive and able to offer a viable alternative to paper publication. 28 Restraint of scientific communication through profit requirements seems to call for a strong response from the scientific community whose interests are not served when their ideas are controlled more rigorously as information becomes commodified.

Further Issues

A corollary issue, and one that has received less discussion in the literature, is the impact of electronic technologies on the nature and quality of scholarship and research and on the development of knowledge. What is the future of scientific research itself? Are our current students and future researchers learning adequate information seeking and research skills? How will a “just-in-time” model of information delivery affect the quality of future research? Will the demand for the easy access of desktop delivery negatively impact science? If only the most current resources are available electronically, will researchers ignore older, potentially important resources? A tragic example of this problem was demonstrated by the death in 2001 of a healthy research subject at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, a death that could have been prevented had the researchers done a proper review of the literature, rather than limiting themselves to an electronic review only. 46, 47 Are academic institutions encouraging and developing methods of teaching lifelong learning skills, rather than the acquisition of facts? What will science gain or lose as a result of the move to new forms of scientific communication? What will happen to the act of browsing? Will the serendipity factor in scientific discovery be lost? These questions have only begun to be studied.

The considerations and problems that arise are different for each group and each must be dealt with differently. For libraries, many of the problems are immediate, whereas for scientists, the issues may be resolved over time, as discussed above. The ability of scientists to have more control over the intellectual and economic benefits of their work, as provided by many of the new initiatives, is very attractive. And in spite of apparent obstacles, there is a continued trend toward more open access to scientific literature. The acceptance of new models may depend upon the age of scientists and their comfort with new technologies. The individual culture of each scientific field will play a large part in how or whether alternatives are embraced. How individual groups of scientists use the literature of their respective fields, and particularly journal literature, will affect the success or failure of particular models.

Many questions remain to be answered. Much discussion is currently taking place of the questions and issues presented by changing patterns of scholarly communication. In early 2000, at a meeting in Tempe, Arizona sponsored by Association of American Universities, the Association of Research Libraries, and the Merrill Advanced Studies Center of the University of Kansas, a group of high level university administrators set out nine “Principles for Emerging Systems of Scholarly Publishing.” These Principals address all of the major issues discussed in this paper and make suggestions regarding collaboration, cost, access, archiving, evaluation and peer review, copyright and fair use, and the reward system. 48


In the models described above, several alternative forms of communication are described that create and reinvigorate possibilities for dissemination of scientific information. We still rely on print publications and certainly will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, the transformation of scientific communication and, indeed, scientific knowledge is already apparent. If the pace of change during the past few years is any indication, the floodgates have opened and we are in a period of rapid change in which there will soon be a critical mass of possibilities. Not only will there be an information “revolution,” but a revolution in the way we develop and perceive knowledge. One can imagine, for example, that new questions might be asked that may not have been possible under old methods of research, resulting in the development of new research. Interdisciplinary research will certainly be enhanced.

It is clear that changing patterns of scientific communication require a re-examination of ideas that have been held dear for many years. While it may seem now that more questions have been raised than answers provided, we must creatively confront the challenge and continue to develop acceptable alternatives to the traditional models of scientific communication. To succeed, scientists—and indeed the entire community of stakeholders—must have an understanding of common interests and goals. We must develop a long view and shared vision of what is necessary to keep scientific information under the control of scientists. Collaborations and partnerships among all of the stakeholders will be essential as we continue upon existing paths and forge new ones that can bring us to that shared vision. In the health sciences in particular, we must be able to ensure that the ultimate result is that consumers are best served by advances in science.

Because one model will not be a “fits all” solution, the constant news of additional models becoming available and being promoted is auspicious. No doubt, within the next few years other imaginative models will be developed and tested and we will have new models of scientific communication that take advantage of the opportunities presented by twenty-first century technology. We are on the horizon of a new age. The exact form of the future is of course unknowable, except for its promise of new and exciting alternatives.


This editorial was originally prepared as part of the admissions process for Fellowship in the American Academy of Optometry. The author thanks her interview committee, Norma K. Bowyer, OD, MS, MPH, FAAO, Carol A. Schwartz, OD, MBA, FAAO, and Howard B. Purcell, OD, FAAO, for their support and valuable comments. She also thanks Anatole Anton for his careful reading and constructive suggestions.


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