the Canadian Science Writers' Association
Life In the Fast Lane:
E-Prints Speed Spread Of Research Results
Want to catch wind of the latest scientific discoveries well before
they're officially published in learned journals? Until recently,
you had to be among an elite circle of journalists, from the likes
of the New York Times, in order to be privy to such news before
it broke to the rest of the world.
Now, with growing interest in a novel breed of online publications,
science writers have a tantalizing new opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes
look at research in progress. These Web-based publications, called
electronic preprint or "eprint" servers, are not journals
in the traditional sense. They are more like dispatches from the
frontiers of science, fired off by researchers straight from the
lab, often before peers have had a chance to review their work.
To many, the philosophy of these servers is appealing: take the
business of communicating research results out of the hands of the
established "dead-tree" print-based journals, blamed for
being too slow for the free flow of scientific knowledge in today's
fast-paced world of the Internet; instead, let scientists share
their results as they make them, via grass-roots Web sites that
allow researchers to post both their own findings and comments on
their colleagues' work in near-real time.
To others, however, eprint servers represent a dangerous, heretical
trend that threatens the very credibility of science. Such servers,
critics warn, will open the floodgates to a deluge of half-baked,
erroneous "discoveries" which would normally be weeded
out by the high academic standards that the peer-review process
demands. At the very least, eprint servers could seriously weaken
the many organizations whose livelihoods depend on their journals'
subscription and advertising revenues.
How did all this come about? Blame it on the physicists. First
came the World Wide Web - a handy new communications tool invented
in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, the European Particle Physics
Laboratory, to let scientists share their research over computer
networks through clever codes called hyperlinks. Then came the original
Los Alamos E-Print Archive (Physics Preprints) - a Web server set
up at the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory
in 1991 by Paul Ginsparg, who was frustrated with the slow pace
that traditional print journals were adapting to the physics community's
brave new networked world.
Now the biomedical community is jumping on the physicists' e-bandwagon
with PubMed Central - the brainchild of Harold Varmus, former director
of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Launched in February
2000, the PubMed Central Web site is designed ostensibly to provide
researchers with a free archive containing the full texts of papers
in the life sciences. As of press time, PubMed Central was also
to have an adjunct site called PubMed Express, which would provide
unreviewed papers as well. Later this year, it is expected to be
joined by two European services: E-Biosci, an initiative of the
European Molecular Biology Organization, will likely require unpublished
drafts to be peer-reviewed before they make it online; on the other
hand, a private venture called BioMed Central reportedly has plans
to offer access to unreviewed drafts.
Meanwhile, the American Association for the Advancement of Science
(AAAS) has unveiled a collaboration among a dozen leading scientific
publishers who have been reluctant to grant free access to online
versions of their printed articles. The joint effort, which includes
Harcourt's Academic Press and John Wiley & Sons, Inc., is not
so much of an eprint server as it is a reference-linking service.
Based on a special tagging language that can be thought of as an
extension to the Web's HTML coding, the new service is designed
to let users click on a linked reference in one online journal and
view the contents of that article, even if it is located on another
journal's Web server. Each publisher will have the option of determining
whether their linked articles will be available as abstracts or
full text and how much the user has to pay to view the contents.
Other online preprint services have also sprung up in various fields.
For example, the United Kingdom-based CogPrints (Cognitive Sciences
Eprint Archive) currently receives 25,000 new papers a year. And
the American Mathematical Society's MathSciNet has an archive of
60 years' worth of Mathematical Reviews and Current Mathematical
Publications. Just what is and isn't reviewed varies from service
to service, so you should check out each one's stated editorial
policies before using or citing any article.
Why should science writers care about electronic preprint servers?
For starters, they can be a treasure trove of scoops. Although the
highly specialized jargon of eprint articles can be difficult to
wade through, you often stumble on potential nuggets of interesting
news stories. A casual glance at the Los Alamos E-Print Archive,
for instance, revealed such enticing article titles as "Can
we predict the fate of the universe?" and "Water Ice in
2060 Chiron and its Implications for Centaurs and Kuiper Belt Objects"
among the dozens of "new" postings as of early February.
However, several caveats should be stressed here, before anyone
goes off half-cocked and starts breaking headlines like these. First,
make sure that these are legitimate findings made by real scientists
from reputable institutions. Although most eprint servers at least
initially screen submissions, some rather strange-sounding articles
can make it through the cracks. On the American Physical Society's
eprint server, for example, an article entitled "A Mass-Metric
Scalar Theory of Gravity," written by a retiree from Colorado,
supposedly describes a theory that "denies the basis for the
existence of black holes."
Second, you might make some scientific enemies pretty quickly if
you don't bother to contact the source of an eprint article and
find out if it's OK to write up a news story before the article
has been officially published. If you jump the gun, and the story
gets on the wires, it can, at the very least, be an embarrassment
to the scientist and his or her colleagues, not to mention the journal
in which the article was to be published. Some journals do not have
such rigid embargo rules as Science or Nature do, but you should
find out in advance.
Third, be prepared to download and install some tricky software
in order to read the full text of eprint articles. In the case of
the Physics Preprints, your computer has to be able to decipher
files written in the PostScript language. (Fortunately, programs
that can be used to view and print these files exist and can be
downloaded free of charge.)
Even if you come up empty-handed in your scouring of an eprint
server, with no big scoop to show for your online labours, you'll
at least have had an exposure to science at the cutting (if not
bleeding) edge. Eprint browsing is a great way of learning about
the current trends in a certain field and to find out what's hot.
Just be careful not to get burned!
For those interested in finding out more about eprint servers,
visit the following Web sites:
Los Alamos E-Print Archive (Physics Preprints): http://xxx.lanl.gov
(See also the Los Alamos press release entitled "Physicist
fantasizes electronic knowledge network" at http://w10.lanl.gov/external/news/releases/archive/99-013.html)
PubMed Central (general overview): http://www.nih.gov/welcome/director/pubmedcentral/pubmedcentral.htm
(see also the National Library of Medicine - http://www.nlm.nih.gov
- for announcements)
Cognitive Sciences Eprint Archive (CogPrints): http://cogprints.soton.ac.uk/
American Mathematical Society's MathSciNet: http://www.ams.org/mathscinet/
Also, the University of Virginia's Science and Engineering Libraries
web site maintains a list of electronic preprint servers and databases
in various fields: http://www.lib.virginia.edu/science/guides/s-preprn.htm
Dan Hogan is a member of the Canadian Science Writers' Association
and senior science editor of Grolier's New Book of Knowledge encyclopedia.
He also runs a science news Web site ScienceDaily (www.sciencedaily.com)
from his adopted home in Connecticut. He can be reached via E-mail
Published in Sources,
Number 45, Summer 2000.
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