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Kansas Geological Survey, Open File Report 96-37

Future of Scientific Communication, part 2 of 6


Traditional paper media such as books, monographs, journals, and maps have been a recognizable aspect of scholarly geologic work for several centuries. Today, they remain the primary medium for communicating research results, transferring technology, and archiving the knowledge base. However, scientific publishing is changing rapidly from a paper medium long the dominion of scientific and commercial publishing organizations and research libraries to a world in which individual researchers and small organizations can print and distribute published work at low cost and short order (Denning and Rous, 1996, Taubes, 1996). The exponential growth in the volume of scientific literature, the increased unit costs of paper publications, and the rapidly increasing power and availability of electronic technology are creating tremendous pressures on traditional channels of scientific communication (Okerson, 1992). Scientific communication based on a paper medium is increasingly difficult and costly to produce, distribute, and archive. These changes pose a major challenge to the traditional publishing process of review, publication and archiving of scientific results. Traditional paper journals and monographs risk becoming a highly developed, but uneconomic, artifact of a past technology (Odlyzko, 1995). The limitations of traditional methods of publishing and transmitting scientific results have long been a subject of discussion. Vannevar Bush more than 50 years ago stated:

"Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. ........ The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present-day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships."

(Vannevar Bush, The Atlantic Monthly, July 1945).

The confluence of a number of ongoing trends is challenging the accepted model of communication that has dominated scientific publication for several centuries. Evolving electronic models of scientific communication are moving beyond the traditional print model of an article within a bound journal to a different conception of scientific communication as an interactive, hypertext-linked, multimedia product. Such on-line products will facilitate efficient and cost-effective communication and application of research results. The on-line revolution in research publication in the earth sciences is just beginning posing serious challenges to participants in the publishing cycle, and the standard practices of peer review. As a result, the role of the participants in the publishing cycle, the researchers, society and commercial publishers, research libraries and readers, will be dramatically altered.

The ongoing trends that are posing a challenge to accepted models of scientific communication include:

Researchers, scientific societies, commercial publishers, and research libraries are responding to these changes with a number of experiments, initiatives and policy changes. Examples from across the spectrum of sciences, including the earth sciences, are providing concrete examples of the future of scientific communication. As an organization involved in earth science research, the Kansas Geological Survey is weaving on-line publication into all of its ongoing and future research and public service operations.

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Kansas Geological Survey, Open-File Report 96-37
Placed online Sept. 1996
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