The silicon presses are rolling

March 1, 1999
If you`re like me, the in-box on your desk fills up daily with material you can`t possibly read. Every day, weighty academic journals and fat trade magazines land in my box with a resounding "thunk." But you and I may be among the last generations to keep up to date via words and images on printed paper. The silicon presses are rolling silently around the world, and new generations of readers are keeping up with a few quick keystrokes at their computers.

If you`re like me, the in-box on your desk fills up daily with material you can`t possibly read. Every day, weighty academic journals and fat trade magazines land in my box with a resounding "thunk." But you and I may be among the last generations to keep up to date via words and images on printed paper. The silicon presses are rolling silently around the world, and new generations of readers are keeping up with a few quick keystrokes at their computers.

Virtually all the major scientific and technical publications are now available electronically, and some scholarly journals are published only online. The Optical Society of America (OSA) already publishes an online journal, Optics Express (www.osa.org). The silicon presses are indeed rolling.

Even the nature of publishing is being hit with a new paradigm--the purely electronic publisher. In California, Stanford University`s HighWire Press (www.highwire.stanford.gifdu) exists only to publish electronic versions of print publications. HighWire Press is, to quote its website, "the Silicon Valley realization of a university press in the new millenium." HighWire now produces 104 journals online, including Science, the magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). HighWire is a silicon press--it publishes only electronic versions of print publications.

But HighWire does more than simply "shovel" electronic images of journals onto the World Wide Web. The electronic editors of HighWire Press add links between authors, articles, and citations and add advanced searching capabilities, high-resolution images and multimedia, thus providing a highly interactive dimension to the printed journals. Late last year, HighWire Press began to provide hypertext links to the vast citation indexes maintained by the highly respected Institute for Scientific Information (ISI; Philadelphia, PA). An electronic publisher in its own right, ISI indexes more than 8000 titles in some 35 languages worldwide (www.isinet.com). The interlinking of the silicon presses has begun. We are seeing the start of the silicon library.

The battle of the presses

And librarians are not burying their heads in their dusty books. As the cost of scholarly publications continues to zoom--an annual subscription to Reed-Elsevier`s Chemical Physics Letters now costs $8000--many university libraries are seeking to contain costs by going electronic. In 1997, the US Association of University Libraries (ARL) set up the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) to underwrite the electronic publishing of journals intended to compete with outrageously expensive journals from commercial publishers. In a startling fashion, HighWire Press and SPARC are now competing head-to-head with traditional for-profit commercial scholarly publishers such as Reed-Elsevier and Springer Verlag. It`s a battle the silicon presses are likely to win. And it`s a battle that can only benefit readers.

I see a strong possibility that there may eventually be a few enormously large electronic science publishers all interlinked so that researchers can find the full text of any published article worldwide. The silicon presses will provide researchers with the publishing equivalent of one-stop shopping in the office, at home, or on the road.

We will shortly see the advent of "knowledge environments," the bringing together of a critical mass of library resources, publishing services, and computer and communications technology to bear on particular topics. HighWire Press and the AAAS are expected to announce a series of knowledge environments later this year. Such knowledge environments will be much more than a hyperlinked database; they will also offer multimedia and interactive elements.

The electronic book

One development is sorely needed to complement the silicon presses--the electronic book or digital reading device. Many researchers download and print Web documents rather than reading them on a computer screen. Thus printing becomes local rather than centralized as with a conventional publisher. A serious electronic alternative is to use a system based on electrophoretic ink that changes color in response to electric current but retains the color when the current is removed. That`s still in the research lab but, make no mistake, the day of the silicon press and the electronic book will be here faster than you might think.

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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