Update, Sept '96, Paul Ginsparg
(appeared in APS newsletter, Nov '96)

In October 1994, the APS (American Physical Society) hosted an "e-Print archive workshop" at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in part to facilitate its own entry into the electronic arena. Since then, the server network based at Los Alamos has experienced continued dramatic growth in both its breadth of coverage and worldwide usage, and the arrival of NSF funding in the spring of '95 has meant as well an interdisciplinary advisory board, full-time programming support and significant improvements in functionality. The archives now process many millions of electronic transactions of all sorts per month, and the submission rate has doubled since Oct. '94 to an anticipated 18,000 new submissions during calendar year '96. The physics community is rapidly moving to realize the vision for the future expressed in the "Report of the APS Task Force on Electronic Information Systems" (Bull. Am. Phys. Soc. 36 (1991) 1119): "The dominant mode [of dissemination] will be via a single electronic physics library, or Physics Database, which will be the heart of a worldwide Physics Information System."

Much of the growth over the past two years has been in areas of physics outside of the original core constituency of high energy physics. For example the condensed matter archive (cond-mat) has had its submission rate double during this period to over 200 submissions per month, and sends daily "abstracts received" listings to over 3000 registered e-mail subscribers. The astrophysics (astro-ph) archive has similary doubled its submission rate to roughly 200 per month and also sends its daily notifications to over 3000 subscribers. The continued stability of the database has moreover led to increased archival usage in all subject areas covered: the vast majority of requests are for papers more than a month old, and over a third of the requests are for papers more than a year old.

The archives coordinated from Los Alamos offer a variety of choices of high quality, low-bandwidth, and standardized platform independent output formats. Recent improvements in, and more widespread usage of, end-user tools such as WorldWideWeb browsers have vastly simplified both retrieval of information from, and submission to, the archives. Near-term concerns have shifted to the continued development of a robust global mirroring system, and to better means of handling meta-level indexing information. Additional mirror distribution sites (most recently added in France and the U.K., joining the Italian, Japanese, and German mirrors; with additional servers projected soon to go on-line in Sweden, Australia, Brazil, Taiwan, and Russia) have given better response times, especially to international users whose access is increasingly impeded due to network congestion caused by recent increases in non-academic network traffic. In the long-term, the mirrored distribution also provides a global backup system resistant to localized database corruption and/or loss of network connectivity.

The functionality of this unified global raw database offers potential dramatic improvements over the research communication mediated by the artificially partitioned database of the paper journal system. In addition to the efficient two-way transmission capabilities, as well as indexing and automated hyperlink references within papers, the system has a password protection scheme which allows authors to transfer ``ownership'' to any journal (or equivalent third-party overlay) for the purpose of freezing the submission, stamping a ``published'' reference, or incorporating errata/addenda (all by author/journal negotiation). Original versions of modified papers are archived, and even intermediate versions can in principle be reconstructed from a series of replacements. These global archives are not at all incompatible with the filtering role historically provided by the journal system. To the contrary, they beckon for learned societies such as the APS to augment their current roles with new forms of intellectual overlays never before feasible. The APS and other Physics Societies could further speed this development by promoting a shared copyright scheme to their members, explicitly allowing authors (and their institutions) to retain electronic full distribution rights to documents as produced by the authors.

Publication and research habits will of course continue to vary from scientific discipline to discipline, and even from subfield to subfield of Physics, but the current framework is already flexible enough to accommodate a variety of behaviors on the part of both authors and evaluators. The majority of authors continue to submit in parallel with conventional journal submission to take advantage of immediate distribution (and de facto precedence claim), and subsequent revisions frequently benefit as much or more from direct reader feedback as from the conventional referee process. Some authors feel more comfortable submitting only after a conventional refereeing process, with an attached "to appear in" comment, still taking advantage of both the advance distribution and archival availability. Certain journals have begun to accept the archive identifier as the electronic submission itself, and conduct their editor/referee interactions as well by means of the version retrieved from the archive. Astrophysical Journal Letters (published by the American Astronomical Society) actively encourages authors of accepted letters to place the "preprint" of the final accepted version in the astro-ph archive. The identifying number is then used to add a link directly to the astro-ph from a web page with a list of letters that have been accepted but not yet published. Physical Review D has similarly begun to add such link information to its own web pages, and in addition uploads directly to the archive information concerning papers "to appear", and later their published status -- the information is then available whenever users search the archive listings or browse abstracts. Better coordination with the existing archives could provide similar immediate benefits to readers of other APS journals.

At the APS workshop two years ago, it was emphasized how recent developments had exposed the extent to which publishers had defined themselves in terms of production and distribution, roles which we now regard as largely automated. (For a complete and updated version of these comments, see this Unesco presentation.) The pressing need remains organization of intellectual value-added, and this type of information can be overlayed on the global raw archive and maintained by any third parties. The archive could be effectively partitioned into sectors, gradated according to overall importance, quality of research, or other useful criteria, and papers could be shifted retroactively as dictated by additional information or follow-up research. And rather than face only an undifferentiated bitstream, the average reader could benefit from an interface that recommended a set of "essential reads" for a given subject from any given time period. There could also be retroactively added descriptive information, "this paper was important since it drew upon a,b,c [hyperlinks to sources] and led to new developments x,y,z [more hyperlinks]" to provide a further guide to the literature. Or the interface could point to a specific paper as having been important, but warn the beginner to go first to a later paper by the same (or other authors) that subsumes, extends, or corrects the same results in a more understandable fashion; or this paper generated much attention but skip it since the fad played itself out and people returned to more serious pursuits. Even interdisciplinary research (for example if a particle physicist wished to peruse the recent literature in biophysics or even biochemistry) can be easily facilitated by an interface that allows rapid identification of papers that provide pedagogic review material or are otherwise likely to be of specific interest to outsiders. Further possibilities such as moderated comments threads attached to specific points in papers together with more exotic features can be added in successive stages as desired.

At least the essential question at this point is no longer whether the scientific research literature will migrate to fully electronic dissemination, but rather how quickly this transition will take place now that all of the requisite tools are on-line. We eagerly anticipate a vastly improved and more useful electronic literature, taking advantage of the flexibility afforded by the electronic medium and unhindered by artifacts of its evolution from paper. The APS and other Physics Societies around the world should take advantage of the extent to which the physics community has already jumped far ahead of other research disciplines in all of this, and ideally the standards set by this community can serve as a model for the rest of scientific research communication.