Technical Publications and the Internet

3 min read

It’s a joy to search and access information so effortlessly on the World Wide Web—that is, until I’m looking for a technical publication. Far too many are hidden behind subscription and payment mechanisms.

The great irony is that virtually every technical paper is held on the computer of an author who would be thrilled to send a free copy to anyone requesting it. But requesting every paper that you might (or might not) want is so inconvenient that almost no one does this. So why aren’t all technical publications freely accessible on the Web?

The first argument that comes to mind is that institutions must restrict their publications to their members to keep those members. However, I doubt that people join the IEEE, for instance, to receive the Transactions --even though many of them say they do in surveys. I would contend--based on no hard data whatsoever--that engineers join to enhance their sense of professionalism and that very few read the Transactions . That doesn’t mean that its papers have little importance, only that the information they contain is primarily promulgated through social networks. Let me be clear that I’m speaking only about heavily technical material and that there are many other publication formats that should indeed be reserved as member benefits.

There are a number of other arguments against free access to technical publications, including the revenue that libraries and publications bring to the institution. I can only say that although these are problems, I have neither the space here nor the relevant knowledge to address them. A more curious barrier is the attitude of the authors themselves. While every author wants as many readers as possible, it seems we are conditioned to want to see our work in print. A work that appears only on the Internet doesn’t seem to have the same weight. Perhaps that is why we call them papers.

The Internet community has been inventing new ways to convey information and to collaborate in understanding it—consumer reviews, discussion forums, blogs, community filtering, and the Wikipedia model. Perhaps we in the technical institutions haven’t taken full advantage of these ideas, and it may be that our historical model for publication is what’s stopping us.

An interesting experiment that has come to my attention is a new policy called publish first, review later. The idea is to cut out the months-long process of review and publication, which seems less and less tolerable as technology accelerates, without permanently renouncing the greatest value our institution can provide: selection among proffered ­materials. Can we have it both ways—quick publication ­without barriers and knowledgeable guidance about which papers are valuable?

I can only imagine how such a system might work. We might have three Internet formats—a ”provisional” magazine that would contain newly submitted, unreviewed papers, a ”classic” magazine that would carry only papers approved by a group of invited reviewers, and a third magazine for the dreaded ”other” cate­gory. Whether the formats would allow for ”consumer” reviews and discussion is an interesting question.

The system would speed publication and stimulate discussion, thus providing more feedback to authors. However, the public scrutiny might discourage many aspiring authors, who would fear the ignominy of having their papers panned, then demoted to the ”other” category. There is also the question of whether a paper could be ­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 an occasional author and a consumer, and I’m not even sure of what I want in either instance. I just feel we can improve on the system we now have.

About the Author

Don’t be alarmed that Robert W. Lucky’s Reflections isn’t on the back page of your magazine. This IEEE Fellow, now retired from Telcordia Technology, continues to write his long-standing column. You’ll find Reflections further up, on p. 25.

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