Applied Mechanics News

Saturday, March 11, 2006

What if all papers become openly accessible?

Of all industries that the community of Applied Mechanics is deeply involved with, none is more in a state of flux than the Publishing Industry. The agony as well as the opportunity is mainly created by the Internet. A previous post, Applied Mechanics in the Age of Web 2.0, talked about news reporting for mid-sized communities with members scattered all over the world, communities such as that of Applied Mechanics. Another post, Wikipedia and Applied Mechanics, considered the possibility of creating wikimechanics, an evolving knowledge base that documents everything known about mechanics. This post will focus on publishing of research papers.

In 1991, Paul Ginsparg created the arXiv, an online repository of research papers. Once an author uploads a paper to the arXiv, the paper is freely accessible to people all over the world, with no peer review. The arXiv now contains about 360,000 papers in Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science, and Quantitative Biology.

It is conceivable that eventually anybody can publish anything in repositories like the arXiv. This scenario is not as radical or futuristic as it may sound; anybody can already post anything online, at almost no cost. Such repositories formalize this practice by providing two ingredients essential to scholarly publishing: trustworthy timestamps and permanent accessibility.

The question how to make scholarly research accessible has been hotly debated (e.g., Nature, The National Academies, Ginsparg). Here I wish to bypass this contentious question, and focus on a hypothetical question: What if all papers have already become openly accessible?

Authors own their papers, except they may not delete papers from repositories. After a paper is posted in an open-access repository, the author can use the paper in any way and upload multiple editions of the same paper. Each edition receives from the repository a distinct timestamp. The author owns the paper, but may not delete the paper from the repository.

Journals select papers and comment on them. When all papers are in open-access repositories, journals will still serve important functions. Once a journal selects a paper from the repositories, possibly peer-reviewed, the paper will automatically gain a special status of being associated with the journal. The same paper can be selected by multiple journals. All journals will rest on the same raw data: papers in the repositories. Journals that select lasting papers and host incisive discussions will be the winners.

Preeminent journals will survive. Since 1991, an author can post a paper in the arXiv, and then publish the same paper in journals like Physical Review Letters. The arXiv has not diminished the preeminence of such journals. Authors want to publish papers in PRL, and readers want to spend their precious time on papers selected by experts. Of course, journals that do not provide more value than arXiv-like repositories will not survive.

Magazines for members of professional societies may thrive. Independent of the coming of open-access repositories, the Internet will make printed journals rare. Consequently, magazines printed for members of professional societies will have fewer competitors. As a journal, SCIENCE will remain preeminent for similar reasons as PRL and NATURE will. As a printed journal, SCIENCE has the advantage of weekly access to the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Another successful membership magazine is the MRS Bulletin. In addition to publishing popular review articles, the MRS Bulletin has a section on Research and Researchers, commenting on selected papers published elsewhere. Indeed, many people consider the MRS Bulletin a more useful publication than the Journal of Materials Research. The ASME Mechanical Engineering Magazine has played no role in scholarly publishing, but a section on mechanical engineering research may be extremely attractive to the ASME members. Once all papers become openly accessible, these sections will become favorite spots for authors and readers alike. Such research sections have also inspired Applied Mechanics Research and Researchers (AMR), a blog focusing on remarkable papers and people in our own field.

The architectures of many-to-many communication. AMR has a simple architecture, enabled by, free of charge. However, AMR need not be restricted to such a simple architecture. A new breed of journals, with low cost and novel functionalities, may well emerge in coming years. As a form of many-to-many communication, scholarly publishing shares enough common features with news publishing that a glance at the latter provides some perspective. Nearly all news is openly accessible today. Sources include traditional ones such as New York Times and BBC News, as well as millions of blogs. Founded in 1997 by a college student, is a leading website of technology news. Although anybody can submit news, usually an item from an existing source, each submission must be reviewed by editors before inclusion. Once an item appears in Slashdot, hundreds of readers usually visit the website of the original source, and many leave comments on Slashdot. Another website,, takes a more democratic approach, allowing anybody to post anything and relying on the community to vote for the most interesting stories., on the other hand, is a combination of many ideas, ranging from Digg’s voting mechanism to receiving newsfeeds from the Associated Press to allowing users to have their own columns. Of the three, however, Slashdot is the oldest and most successful. Although its method of content retrieval is the slowest and it interacts the least with the users, the consistent quality of Slashdot has made it a standard bearer.

Newsfeeds. Start pages– websites designed for reading news – will allow you to see new papers published in your favorite journals at a glance. You can also subscribe the results of Google News Search of keywords such as “Web 2.0”. Google ranks all the news about Web 2.0, and updates the headlines on your computer monitor. In effect, you have just created a journal on the subject of Web 2.0.

Bookmarking and tagging. Filing papers is a chore, especially for people interested in several fields. Once all papers become openly accessible, you can file papers using Internet tools, such as, a seminal bookmarking website. You bookmark interesting items found online, and tag them with phrases like “biomechanics” or “nanotechnology.” You can access these items from any computer anywhere in the world. Furthermore, when you search for such a tag, you will see a list of items tagged by other users, and the number of users that have bookmarked each item. Therefore, makes it easier to find the best, or at least the most popular, items for a search.

Citations and rankings. Open-access repositories will not diminish the utility of familiar tools such as Web of Science and Google Scholar, provided they become smart about ranking papers in the repositories. In this new brave world, it will make no sense to publish many papers on a single idea. A single good paper – perfected in successive editions, selected by many journals, and tagged and commented upon by many users – will be a sure winner.

I’ve benefited from discussions with several people. Michael Suo wrote the first draft of pagragraphs on slashdot, digg, newsvine, start pages and This post has neglected many important issues, and I’ll try to update when I write next time on the topic. As always, you are most welcome to add your comments below.


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