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A Hazy View Down the Electronic Superhighway

By Martin Blume, APS Editor-in-Chief

As of July 1, all issues of Physical Review and Physical Review Letters are available electronically on the Internet. Physicists can now take advantage of the low-cost personal subscriptions offered to our membership, or may gain on-line access through their institutions to all print journals to which the institutions subscribe.

Many new features, such as searching and linking, are now possible online, and more are in store. We expect to have all our journals online in the Physical Review On-Line Archive - PROLA - back to 1985 in the next year, and in the long term will go all the way back to the beginnings.

The distribution of physics journals has been largely unchanged since the founding of the Physical Review in 1893. The splendid centenary collection of two hundred important Physical Review papers, edited by Henry Stroke, shows this clearly.

The founders of Physical Review would have been astonished by the incredible development of physics in 100 years, but they would have been quite familiar with the product: a paper journal, different in layout and type, but otherwise quite recognizable.

Only in back of the centenary volume is there a hint that things are in process of change. A thin silvery disc, hard to find in the seven-centimeter-thick volume, is included in the package. This CD-ROM contains the 200 papers selected for printing, but also 800 more that were worthy of note, but which could not be printed without busting the budget.

We are in the midst of a revolution in the distribution of the results of scientific research, and physicists are playing a major role, both technologically and conceptually, in that revolution. The CD-ROM was only an initial harbinger, and the online availability of our journals is but a step toward a hazily defined future.

We have put our journals online by completing the printing process and then making a few additions so that they can be posted on the Internet. This is a smart way of getting online quickly, but clearly the wrong way to do things. Print should be a derivative of the electronic version, and not the other way around. Only then can we take advantage of the many enhancements, cost savings and speedup of publication potentially made possible by electronic submission, refereeing, and distribution.

Many pieces of this future are already in place - Paul Ginsparg's "xxx" e-print archive at Los Alamos embodies these modes of distribution, and gives scientists the results of research at a very rapid pace. While the papers are unrefereed (though there is the possibility of commenting on submitted e-prints) they can be used by editors and referees to supplement their own knowledge of the papers being reviewed.

The American Physical Society must move as quickly as possible to adopt these ways of working, but should not abandon its own strengths. Peer review is essential, but we can enhance the quality and speed of the refereeing process by using electronic tools. We also need print, because it provides the only archival medium now recognized as "permanent," and because many physicists still prefer it to reading something on a screen. We can, however, imagine a future in which print is still important, but in which print distribution has disappeared. Those wanting paper copies would be able to download and print their own "journals" from the electronic versions. (Or have their librarians, colleagues or a contractor do this for them.)

A robust, reliable, fast, cheap Internet is required for the entire electronic enterprise to work. Right now the Internet is cheap, but neither fast nor reliable, especially where international transmissions are involved. Nor do we have assurance that the low cost will continue, particularly since telecommunications companies regard the Internet as a potential source of considerable revenue. Each improvement in Internet connectivity is often matched by a disproportionate increase in public access, which leads to reduced speed and even gridlock. It may therefore be necessary to arrange for an international research network separate from the public one. This was, of course, the origin of the Internet, and would simply take us back to its roots.

The present situation in publishing can be compared to the revolution in personal transportation that took place in the 50 years after the founding of the Physical Review. The horse and buggy was gradually replaced with the automobile. At the same time the highway system was developed -- pavement, four lane and limited access.

Our publishing situation is at the stage where the horse and buggy is being replaced, but with an automobile that looks like a buggy with an internal combustion engine. Only when the automobile was designed from the ground up did it reach its full potential. As far as the roads are concerned we are looking at a paved but not limited access highway. In many parts of the world there are either dirt paths or no roads at all. We are in process of removing some of the horse manure left over from the horse and buggy era, which we hope will not be replaced with air pollution. We must also work to avoid having the electronic superhighway become a toll version of the Long Island Expressway.

There are remarkable possibilities in the electronic future, but many economic, technological, and sociological potholes to be avoided if those possibilities are to be realized. At the American Physical Society we are intent on being in the forefront of the new era -- we don't want to be the blacksmiths of this revolution.

We must do this while maintaining the high quality of the published research that has been our focus for the past one hundred years, and continuing the present mode of distribution until it can be safely discontinued without cutting off many physicists from the refereed literature. The membership of the Society has a significant role to play in determining the directions in which we move. Please try our online journals. Even without a subscription the tables of contents and abstracts can be viewed without charge. They can be reached through the Research Journals link on the APS home page. Please give us your feedback.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin