When Everything is Electronic
Let us now speculate a bit about what will happen when all academic publication is electronic. I suggest that (1) publications will have more general form; (2) new filtering and refereeing mechanisms will be used; (3) archiving and standardization will remain a problem.
The fundamental problem with specialized academic communication is that it is specialized. Many academic publications have fewer than 100 readers. Despite these small numbers, the academic undertaking may still be worthwhile. Progress in academic research comes by dividing problems up into small pieces and investigating these pieces in depth. Painstaking examination of minute topics provides the building blocks for grand theories.
However, much can be said for the viewpoint that academic research may be excessively narrow. Rumor has it that a ghost named Pedro haunts the bell tower at Berkeley. The undergrads make offerings to Pedro at the Campanile on the evening before an exam. Pedro, it is said, was a graduate student in linguistics who wanted to write his thesis on Sanskrit. In fact, it was a thesis about one word in Sanskrit. And, it was not just one word, but in fact was on one of this word's forms in one of the particularly obscure declensions of Sanskrit. Alas, his thesis committee rejected Pedro's topic as "too broad."
The narrowness of academic publication, however, is not entirely due to the process of research, but is also due to the costs of publication. Editors encourage short articles, partly to save on publication costs but mostly to save on the attention costs of the readers. Physics Letters is widely read because the articles are required to be short. But one way that authors achieve the required brevity is to remove all "unnecessary" words-such as conjunctions, prepositions, and articles.
Electronic publication eliminates the physical costs of length, but not the attention costs. Brevity will still be a virtue for some readers; depth will be a virtue for others. Electronic publication allows for mass customization of articles, much like the famous inverted triangle in journalism: there can be a one-paragraph abstract, a one-page executive summary, a four-page overview, a 20-page article, and a 50 page appendix. User interfaces can be devised to read this "stretchtext."
Some of these textual components can be targeted toward generalists in a field,
some toward specialists. It is even possible that some components could be directed toward readers who are outside the academic specialty represented. Reaching a large audience would, presumably, provide some incentive for the time and trouble necessary to create such stretchtext documents.
This possibility for variable-depth documents that can have multiple representations is very exciting. Well-written articles could appeal both to specialists and to those outside the specialty. The curse of the small audience could be overcome if the full flexibility of electronic publication were exploited.