Technical Publications and the Internet

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Jan 2008

It’s such a joy these days to be able to search and access information so effortlessly on the World Wide Web – that is, until I’m looking for some technical publication. Far too many scientific and technical publications, from the IEEE and other institutions, are hidden behind subscription and payment mechanisms.

The great irony of these access restrictions is that virtually every technical and scientific paper is held on some author’s personal computer, and that author would be thrilled to send a free copy to anyone requesting it. But making a request for every paper that you might or might not ultimately want would be so inconvenient that almost no one would actually do this. So it often occurs to me: why aren’t all technical publications freely accessible to everyone on the Web? Wouldn’t it be a great boon to all of us if our technical publications, as well as those of sister institutions, were easily accessible on the Web?

The first argument that comes to mind against such a policy is that receiving publications is a primary benefit of membership in an institution. However, my personal belief is that members don’t join IEEE, for instance, to receive the Transactions -- in spite of what they say in surveys. I would contend – based on no hard data whatsoever – that engineers join IEEE to enhance their sense of professionalism, and that very few actually read the papers in the Transactions. That doesn’t mean that papers have little importance, only that the information they contain is primarily promulgated through social networks. I should be clear that I’m only speaking about heavily technical material such as that which typically appears in Transactions. I do believe there are many other publication formats that should be considered restricted benefits of membership.

There are a number of other arguments against free access to technical publication, including the role of libraries and the role of publications in the economics of the institution. I can only say that these are indeed problems, but ones which I have neither the space here nor the relevant knowledge to address. A more curious barrier is the attitude of the authors themselves. While every author wants as many readers as possible, it seems that we are conditioned to place great value on seeing our work in “print.” A work that appears only on the Internet doesn’t seem to have the same substance. Perhaps there is a reason that we call them “papers.”

The Internet community has been inventing new ways to convey information and to collaborate in its understanding. There are consumer reviews, discussion forums, blogs, community filtering, and the Wikipedia model, among other new formats. Perhaps we in the technical institutions haven’t taken full advantage of these new models, and our historical model for publication may be a barrier to their adoption.

An interesting experiment that has come to my attention is a new publication model called “publish first; review later.” One of the problems with our current model is that the review and publication process takes a fixed number of months, while technology moves at an ever faster pace. Nevertheless, one of the great values that our institution can provide to its members (and to the university tenure system) is that of selection among proffered materials. Can we have it both ways – quick publication without barriers, but also knowledgeable guidance about which papers are actually valuable?

I can only imagine how such a publication system might work. I could see three Internet magazine formats. One format would be the newly submitted, unreviewed “provisional” magazine. Another would be the “classic” magazine containing the papers that had been moved there after receiving favorable reviews from a group of invited reviewers, while the third magazine would be the dreaded “other” category. Whether or not each of these magazines would be open to inclusion of “consumer” reviews and discussion is an interesting question.

The primary advantages of such a system would be quick publication without the traditional barriers faced by unknown authors, as well as the increased feedback and discussion that would attend with later submitted reviews and comments.

However, there are problems. Incentives to authorship are extremely important, and having to submit your work for public scrutiny seems a terrible risk that would disincent many aspiring authors. I can only imagine the ignominy of having your paper demoted to the “other” category after receiving unfavorable reviews. There are also the questions of whether or not a paper could be subsequently modified or withdrawn. Are our papers living documents or are they to be inscribed in immutable stone?

I realize that I have raised more questions than answers. Like many of you, I am both a sometimes author and a consumer, and I’m not even sure of what I want in either instance. I just have this feeling that we can do better than the system we currently have.

Robert Lucky