Dollars and sense in scientific publishing

Ginsparg believes that all scientific publishing eventually will move to the Internet, doing away with paper journals.

Nov 1st, 2002

Among the winners of this year's MacArthur Foundation Awards is Paul Ginsparg, professor of physics and computing and information science at Cornell University. He is one of 24 fast-rising intellectuals who will receive a no-strings-attached grant of $500,000 over the next five years.

Ginsparg is best known in the physics world as the creator of an online system for rapidly and widely distributing scientific research results — known by scientists around the world as "arXiv.org"—which bypasses the conventional avenues of scientific paper publication. "arXiv" is pronounced like "archive"—The X represents the Greek letter chi. Understandably, this new archive has many traditional scientific publishers worried.

Eleven years ago, working in his spare time on surplus equipment while at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Ginsparg launched a computer-based system for distributing "preprints" of scientific papers. Last year Ginsparg joined the Cornell faculty and moved the arXiv to a server at Cornell. The service is now located at http://arXiv.org and is supported by the National Science Foundation and the Cornell University Library.

The arXiv now contains nearly 210,000 articles in physics, mathematics, and computer science, with almost 3000 new submissions coming in each month. More than 15 million text articles a year are downloaded. Unlike articles submitted to professional journals, papers submitted to the archive are immediately available online, at no cost to the user. Also, unlike articles submitted to professional journals, postings to arXiv.org are not peer-reviewed. Except for some rudimentary screening for inappropriate off-topic submissions, almost anyone can post almost anything. It's up to the reader to decide what is worthwhile.

Ginsparg believes that all scientific publishing eventually will move to the Internet, doing away with paper journals. That move will streamline a system in which, as Ginsparg puts it, scholars give their material to publishers for free and their institutions then pay thousands of dollars in subscription fees to read it in the journals.

While several conventional scientific publishers are doing or planning to do similar things, Ginsparg said, the arXiv still has an "extraordinary conceptual difference" and is vastly less expensive than traditional publishing—$1 to $5 compared to $2,000 to $20,000 for a conventional journal.

Ginsparg has joined Cornell's new Information Science Laboratory to do research on distributed network resources, using ideas drawn from the arXiv experience. "The way researchers acquire information that they need is completely transformed from a decade ago. Our basic assumption is that we're only scratching the surface of the iceberg," he said, deliberately mixing metaphors to emphasize the magnitude of the unknown. He is also a member of the Cornell University Library Board and is becoming interested in problems that go beyond the digital library initiative.

In physics he is moving from string theory to statistical mechanics. But, "I never end up doing what I claim I'm going to do anyway," he pointed out.

The MacArthur Foundation allows recipients to use the money in any way they choose. As to how he will use the grant, "I don't really know yet," Ginsparg said. "When I was doing this early on and it was new and controversial, that was the fun part. Now these awards come in and so it's clearly time to do something new and creative."

He plans to expand the arXiv to other scientific disciplines. "The reason it worked in physics is that I'm a physicist and I know how physics works," he said. Ginsparg is clearly not one to tread the conventional pathways of physics.

Jeffrey Bairstow
Online Editor
jbairstow@pennwell.com

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