If you look at the World Wide Web today, you will notice that it is similar to a printing press. The big difference is that (almost) everyone has access to it, that you are not limited to words and images, and that publishing and distributing have become synonyms.
Scientific publication has a long standing tradition of quality. It is necessary. Without refereed publications, there is no way to evaluate a scientist. How will we reconcile the fact that anyone can put their papers in the web (here are some of mine), with our precious peer reviewed process? Are those papers out there in the Web published? The problem with Web-publishing your own work is the lack of peer review. Journals give a guarantee, albeit very small, of quality, namely, somebody read this paper and said it was okay. The Web provides no such thing. You may think that putting your preprints in a Web site is like sending them to colleagues (I certainly do!). Some editors do not feel the same way. When they get your paper they expect it to be unpublished and that excludes Web-publishing.
On the other hand, anyone who has published more than two papers knows that journals are also in trouble. They take so long to get a paper out that by the time it is published it is old news. The only reason to publish it seems to be to be evaluated, not to be read. To be read you have to send out preprints (or put your papers on the web!). Also journals, specially those from big publishing houses, cost a lot of money. Libraries have seen their budget increased in an exponential way and the age of information is not helping at all.
Electronic Journals may seem like an answer to some of these problems, but I confess I do not trust them. Ten years ago, there wasn't any World Wide Web. In ten years, what guarantee do we have that the electronic papers of today will be available? So far we have only the promise from some institutions that they will preserve some copies of electronic publications and make them accessible. But nobody says who is going to shoulder the cost, if the new technology happens to be expensive. With paper-publishing, copies of the journal are in thousands of libraries, it is accessible now and it would take a tremendous catastrophe to make it disappear from the face of the earth. Also, while electronic journals seem cheaper on paper, again big publishing houses are charging a lot more money to add the electronic version of their best journals. This worries librarians that see their budget getting away in exchange of nothing tangible. In some cases you pay for a year subscription, If you cancel you have nothing afterwards. With the paper copies they will always have that year in their stands. Some of these argument have been made by Steven G. Krantz.
I think the mathematical community should discuss these issues now. If we don't talk about it, the future is still going to happen, we just won't shape it. So here are my two cents worth. I think the role of editor should take a dramatic change. The editor should become a browser, looking in the web for mathematicians and their papers. reading a lot of them and selecting the best for their journal. Evaluation will have to change. But instead of submitting a paper to an editor one can just send email messages to several editors pointing out your own paper in the Web. In this way there is some pressure to editors to quickly select the best papers (if one editor doesn't hurry, some other editor may snatch them up!). There will be less journals, but probably better ones. Being an editor will be more work, but also having more power and recognition and the best editors will clearly stand out. The best part? This is something we can do now, without big meetings and discussions. Authors put your work on the Web, editors start hunting the best down!
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Last Modified: January 28, 1999