[Research notes] Journal of Digital Social Sciences

Not so many years ago, when online publication appeared in the scientific press, it was intended as nothing more than a side service. A scientific review was still a periodical collection of pages compiled, printed and distributed by an editor under the form of a booklet, which was bought, indexed and made available by academic libraries. The physical support was inseparable from its content to the point that we currently refer to a scientific article as a ‘paper’. However, since the day reviews started to be compiled with personal computers, editors realized that they could easily export an electronic copy of the articles they were collecting and post it on their websites. Often editors online provided just the title and abstract of the articles as a tease for readers. Sometimes, they uploaded the full-text as an extra service offered to libraries already subscribed to the hardcopy version.

Soon however, librarians started to realize how much simpler and less expensive it was to manage digital files instead of paper booklets. Consequently, they informed scientific editors they would rather buy just the electronic version of their reviews. To meet this demand, some editors set up online archives for their contents. Others, the majority, decided to rely on portals that gathered and standardized contents coming from different scientific editors. In a few years, the majority of scientific press became available through a handful of specialized portals. By this time, scholars had discovered how nice it was to search their bibliographic references online. In a couple of decades the entire chain of scientific publication (from paper submission, to bibliography compiling) has gone online.

The way articles are written, distributed and exploited is radically changing and yet, strangely enough, articles themselves are not: they are still papers. Unaffected by digital revolutions, articles continue to be made of (plain) text and (few) images.

The fact that papers are the only unchanged link in the chain of scientific press is even more remarkable as research practices themselves have been deeply affected by the impact of digital technologies. Disciplines such as physics, chemistry and biology have been thoroughly renovated by electronic computing and the same renewal is taking place, a few years later, in the human (digitalhumanities.org) and social sciences (Lazer et al., 2009). Before computers, the only medium to know the same irresistible success in scientific community was the movable-type press. We know how deeply Gutenberg’s invention affected the birth of modern sciences (Eisenstein, 1979) and there is evidence that digital technologies may play the same role in the next few years. In social (as well as in natural) sciences, research practices are mutating under the influence of electronic tools. Not only existing methodologies are facilitated and enhanced by digital technologies, but new digital methods are emerging that were unthinkable just a few years ago (Roger, 2009).

This amazing effervescence spreading through laboratories all over the word is hardly visible when one looks at the actual products of social sciences. No matter how innovative the source or the analysis of the data may be, the results of social researches are still delivered under the two hundred year old form of a scientific paper. Even if both the chains of scientific production and of scientific dissemination have been completely renovated, the very link between the two of the remains unchanged. Scientific papers still have the exact same form they use to have when research was made and published on paper. This inertia prevents scientific press from divulging the full richness of computer-enhanced research and from taking advantage of the potential of online publication. Of course, scholars can publish rich multimedia accounts of the results of their research on their websites; of course portals on social sciences can be organized. Yet, when it comes to career evaluation (in particular as scientometrics indicator are concerned), scientific papers are the only publications that really matters. Papers are the bottleneck of scientific research.

The last sentence of the previous paragraph needs to be qualified: there are excellent reasons why papers remain the bottleneck of scientific research. For one thing, the ‘organized skepticism’ of modern science (Merton, 1973) would be impossible without a standardized way to identify and cite the ideas submitted to the evaluation of the scientific community. To support or criticize the work of their colleagues, scientists need to be able to refer to them unequivocally. This, in fact, is the main function of the system of papers and journals.

Still, an increasing number of scientific practices are emerging that cannot comfortably be squeezed through the bottleneck of paper publication. Online communication, in particular, offers scientific publishing two unprecedented possibilities: multimedia and interactivity.

Multimedia is the capacity of digital technologies to draw together formats originally developed for separated medias, such as texts, images, video, sounds… Multimedia is interesting for scientific publishing because it lets authors profit from new formats of publication (see, for example, how the Journal of Visualized Experiments – jove.com – is experimenting with the use of videos to present scientific protocols), without renouncing the advantages of the old ones. In a multimedia environment, the most diverse elements can find their place within the traditional textual structure of the scientific papers (in the same ways notes, images and tables are currently embedded in text).

Interactivity is the capacity of digital technologies to offer a non-linear exploration of a message. Though traditional formats have always allowed some interaction to their reader (through textual devices such as notes, references, citations and tables), the possibilities opened up by online media are unprecedented. Today, instead of just describing their research protocols, scholars can embed them (or part of them) in the publication.

While multimedia and interactivity may enhance scientific publication, it is crucial that the other features of traditional publishing are not lost in the process. As we said, there are good reasons why scientific papers have so far remained the only accepted format for scientific publications. Papers have four features that made them irreplaceable in modern science: they are citable (it is possible to identify them unequivocally); accessible (they can be accessed by anyone at a reasonable cost); durable (their maintenance is relatively easy) and stable (once published, they cannot be intentionally or unintentionally altered). Without these features, scientific publications would not be able to contribute to the dialogue of the scientific community.


From a technical point of view, there are no major obstacles preventing scientific publishing to exploit the potential of digital technologies. Web technologies, in particular, have proved to be a perfectly suitable support for scientific communication. Developed in an academic environment and inspired by the practices of academic publishing (Berners-Lee, 1999), web protocols have a natural affinity with the publication principles discussed above, thereby reducing the cost for migrating online.

Citability. According to many observers, the most important brick in the development of the Web was the introduction of the Uniform Resource Locators. URLs provide a system of unique addresses allowing any file available online to be reached by any computer connected to the Internet. Embedded in web pages as hyperlinks, URLs offer a convenient and unambiguous system of citation among any type of document.

The platform for digital scientific publishing we are proposing should draw significantly on the URLs system to assure the citability of its publication. Each article published on the platform will therefore be assigned a permanent URL (also called ‘permalink’) that will identify it unequivocally and enduringly. Elements within articles will be identified by anchors or sub-URLs (also permanent), allowing scholars to cite them directly (the same way it is possible to cite a specific page or paragraph within a traditional scientific paper).

Accessibility. Making web documents accessible to a growing number of people in the world required and still requires considerable efforts. In the last few yars, accessibility problems seem to be moving toward the ‘last mile’: the actual software that allows documents to be read online. This software, usually called a browser or reader, exists in several proprietary and open solutions, each one with multiple versions released in different times for different devices (computers, mobile phones, tablets…).

To be universally accessible, scientific publication should therefore be delivered in formats that can be properly read by as many browsers and readers as possible. This is why the digital scientific publishing platform we are proposing should rely on the Web standards as defined by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and conform to the guidelines issued by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

Durability. Besides allowing the largest accessibility, recent web standards have another important advantage: they assure the forward and backward compatibility of the documents they encode.

Relying on web technologies, the scientific publishing platform we are proposing will be durable because the legibility of its content will be assured through time by the forward and backward compatibility of web standards. Though it is well known that digital technologies are affected by a very fast obsolescence, employing compatible standards guarantees that scientific publications will remain readable for a relatively long period of time without requiring conversion or other software maintenance.

Stability. The efforts deployed to assure the durability of web standards may be defeated by the facility with which it is possible to add, remove or modify any online file. The possibility to change online documents at an infinitesimal cost is surely one of the greatest advantages of web technologies, but it does create a problem for scientific publishing.

As concerning stability, the type of publication we are imagining will resemble more paper-print than e-publishing. Although no technical reasons prevent articles to evolve (and be traced in such evolution), the platform we are proposing will not allow such changes. Once a digital article is reviewed and published, it will not be allowed to change, unless as an entirely new submission.

Multimedia and interactivity. The advent of HTML 5 has marked the official acknowledgment of the role of multimedia and interactivity in online communication. Offering better support to handle data, videos, sounds, dynamic images, style sheets and making all these elements (and other) easily programmable through JavaScript, HTML 5 is greatly enhancing the multimedia and interactive potential of web standards (thereby bypassing non standard languages as Flash actionscript).

For all these reasons, HTML 5 and related technologies (in particular JavaScript) seems particularly suitable for scientific publishing. Other technologies exist, of course, that are vastly used in research and could be transmitted over the Internet (see for instance the work done by the project HUBzero.org to develop an environment capable of transfering online any experiment of computational science – McLennan & Kennell, 2010). We feel, however, that web standards offers the best cost-benefit compromise. With a relative little effort for the publishers and the readers, web technologies can open scientific literature to a vast range of new formats and combinations of formats.


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