Information Today
Volume 17, Issue 9 • October 2000
• Focus on Publishing •
E-Prints Are Gaining Momentum
There are many tricky challenges in an Internet-speed world 
by Robin Peek

The problem with “Internet speed” is that it has become the norm to apply the “1-year-on-the-Internet-is-equal-to-10-in-the-real-world” rule to everything on the Web. When this rule is applied to scholarly journals and their progress, it makes them appear to be slumbering giants. Oh sure, we’ve digitized a lot of titles, but as a whole the genre has advanced at a comparatively slow rate of true Web adoption. Now, I realize that in the world of academia the transformation moved pretty darn fast. Still, in the final analysis we have to wonder how much things really have changed.

I’ve concluded that the single most important reason that scholarly journals shifted from print to electronic form is due to an incredible aversion to photocopiers. It may even be right up there with visiting the dentist—a dislike exceeded only by an even greater dislike of standing in line to use the library photocopier. So, the first great wave of change for these slumbering scholarly journals was to get them into a digital form and downloadable to a printer near you.

This step was significant, but it produced mostly the same content and the same players in a digital form. As such, this simple transformation seems far more evolutionary than revolutionary. In this column, I want to focus on the far greater challenge of current e-print (electronic preprint) development. While e-prints have been a well-known topic of discussion in scholarly journal circles for years now, producing them is still a bigger, and more difficult step to take than just digitizing journals. And unlike photocopier disdain, there isn’t yet the universal groundswell to rally the masses.

E-Print Momentum
The e-print area is one in which adoption seems particularly slow compared to the vaunted Internet speed. But consider that in 1995, when I edited the book Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic Frontier, the whole notion of digitizing journals was still quite a radical concept. But I believe that academia needed to take this critical first step of just getting used to the reality of electronic journals before it could collectively begin to digest how to further tweak the publishing beast.

E-prints are far more complicated than they might appear at first glance. At its simplest form, any scholar can take a paper, code it in HTML, and place it on whatever Web site he or she chooses—similar to going to a conference with a small stack of photocopied articles. Some scholars do, in fact, distribute e-prints this way, risking the wrath of traditional journals that often label these as “previously published works.”

But true e-prints are very different—questions of time stamping, authentication, protection of intellectual property, version control, and archiving are generally considered necessary for e-prints to have an acceptable future in the academic community. And to some, e-prints are the solution to overcoming both the long-standing problems of delays in publishing and the staggering costs of commercial publishers.

The best-known e-print archive is maintained at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico ( by Paul H. Ginsparg, a longtime champion of this alternative model of scholarship. This server has offered pre-print distribution for the physics community since 1995, under support of the U.S. Department of Energy. A similar service in the U.K. supports CogPrints ( for various aspects of cognitive sciences. These archives served as a conceptual model for the National Institutes of Health’s PubMed Central (, although e-prints are still slated to be included at a later date.

Pressure on Publishers
Not surprisingly, publishers have begun to respond to these alternative forms of circulating scholarship. ChemWeb, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Elsevier Science, Ltd., has just announced that it’s supporting a pre-print server at its Web site ( The Chemistry Preprint Server (CPS) was also developed to closely follow the Los Alamos archives.

Submission to CPS is open to all members of the community, but registration is free-of-charge to anyone. All word-processor-type files are accepted and instantly converted to Adobe PDF. Supplementary files, such as PowerPoint and Excel, can be uploaded with the article. The archive is browsable and searchable. According to Bill Town, director of operations at ChemWeb, “ will augment ChemWeb’s role as a publisher-neutral Web site. The Preprint Server could be the start of a revolution in chemistry publishing as we know it today.”

John Wiley & Sons already supports some e-print servers at its InterScience site (, but in my limited observations they’re not used very often. A new service called EarlyView will create an intermediary step between the e-print and the journal. Articles that have been reviewed and accepted for publication will be available online a few days after final corrections are approved by the production editor. Articles will go live as soon as they’re ready and they’ll later be pulled into the issue to which they were assigned.

Releasing articles when they’re ready, instead of waiting for an issue to be published in print, is essential in a world where delays of a year now seem absurd. But, ironically, EarlyView also demonstrates how articles can easily be separated from the journal proper—and if a journal’s contents can be so easily unbundled, what is the role of a traditional journal?

Who Should Run the Archives?
One of the problems that the e-print movement has had to confront is who should be responsible for the e-prints and how. Most supporters of e-prints want to see the traditional publishers removed from the role of caretakers of this scholarly communication genre. Many have seen universities emerging as principal caretakers of e-prints, but what has been missing has been a foundation for creating a universal archive.

The solution may lie in Eprints, new software developed by the Electronics and Computer Science Department at the University of Southampton ( This generic version is fully interoperable with other open archives, according to the agreement reached at the October 1999 Open Archives initiative meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico (

This new system is the successor to the CogPrints Archive. Eprints is designed to be as flexible and adaptable as possible so that universities can adopt and configure it with minimal effort for all disciplines. The question of whether Eprints will become the universally accepted solution to e-print distribution will probably not be quickly answered. One fundamental concern is the issue of management—whether publishers, professional societies, government agencies, universities, or some combination thereof should be responsible.

Professional Societies
The question of management was one major issue that was taken up at the Freedom of Information Conference held at the New York Academy of Medicine in July. This conference was supported by BioMed Central and transcripts are available at its Web site (

I found this conference refreshing because it questioned the probable success of academic societies in leading their memberships into the “promised land” of e-prints. Elizabeth Marincola, executive director of the American Society of Cell Biology, observed that, “Societies may be doing God’s work, so to speak, but that does not except them from the possibility of failing.” And Marc Brodsky, director of the American Institute of Physics, painted an even darker future for societies, noting that, “If technology is the drive for all this, societies are not likely to survive. That’s the most likely scenario.”

One significant challenge remains because most societies manage the important journals in their respective fields, and many derive much of their operating income from these journals. Hence, embracing e-prints could significantly reduce their income. Therefore, one can seriously question whether these societies will embrace e-prints even if their use could improve scholarly exchange and reduce distribution costs. In comparison to digitizing journals, this next step is where the real work begins and the fate of the scholarly publishing landscape could be determined. And, unfortunately, it’s probably not going to be happening at Internet speed.

Robin Peek is associate professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College. Her e-mail address is

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