The Effect of the WWW on Scientific Research and Publishing#

Hermann Maurer, Chair of Informatics Section of Academia Europaea and David Coates, Executive Secretary of Academia Europaea, Graz and London, 11 February 2010

In what follows, we will try to describe some of the many changes that are due to the spread of the Internet, and the WWW (“the Web”) in particular. We have been rather provocative in some aspects, in the hope of stimulating further Academy debates.

It is important to understand that the impact of these tools varies considerably from discipline to discipline. Thus, before we start, we want to make it clear that for some areas; such as physics, chemistry, engineering, and informatics etc. the pursuit of the ‘business of research’ could hardly continue without these technologies. Other fields are much less impacted at this point in time, but their time will come! One issue is clear even now: The Web is not only a reason for jubilation (including for its supporters), but also for concerns, as the Web does have some rather negative aspects. Let us first discuss what we see as real advantages and follow on with a short and incomplete list of possible dangers.

Some Advantages of the Internet for Researchers#

There is no doubt that some basic applications of the Internet are used by a very high percentage of researchers in all areas. One such basic usage certainly being email and daily information distribution. After all, you would not be reading this right now if you did not use the Internet for such purposes, at least once in a while.

However, in some fields like in Informatics, usage goes much further. All big publishers offer their journals and conference proceedings in electronic form through the Web. The number of times a researcher in such fields now takes time out to visit traditional libraries has decreased to the extent that some section-libraries are now used for non-library purposes. Knowledge has become distributed and fractured – at least in terms of comprehensive physical collections and more personalised, in terms of better matching the researcher’s own specific portfolio of needs.

Ease of electronic access to e.g. journal publications, does not only save time: electronic publications also have a number of other significant advantages. They can be easily searched by authors, by title, by keywords and combinations thereof. Also, once a paper has been retrieved, one can use citation indices to find out where the paper has been cited, leading to potentially newer or supplementary information. Some collections of electronic publications have automated this with a feature called “Links into the Future”: if a paper was written in, say, 1996, and a paper in 2003 is citing it, then as an add-on to original 1996 paper, a note is available to the reader pointing to the fact that a more recent paper from the year 2003 is citing it. Thus, the newer paper can be immediately accessed via this link. Also, increasingly, electronic journals may allow readers to comment (and to comment on comments – a twitter or blog), thus allowing discussions to erupt at interesting places and times.

Although many journals are available electronically, this mode of accessibility is becoming more common for conference proceedings, digitized books etc. Let us mow take a closer look at electronic journals. Indeed there are two major variants for journals: Version 1: The journal is only available electronically. Version 2: The journal is available in both printed and electronic form. Pricing and availability may well vary (substantially) in both cases.

Version 1: The journal is only available electronically. #

The oft quoted advantages ascribed to such journals include; their rapid dissemination, either by posting the publications on a server, or by mailing new editions to a list of subscribers, like the ‘E-Zine’ you have used to get at this article. Often such versions are made available ‘free of charge’ (or as a part of a wider service offered by some organisation). Fifteen years ago there were many discussions as to whether or not such journals would take over, simply because they are free [1]. But developments have shown clearly, that high quality refereed publications cannot be really ‘free’.

Even if the reviewers do not charge for their work (as is usually the case), the administration, quality control, formatting, hosting, etc. will require substantial resources and therefore cost. Someone has to pay for this. Sometimes it is an organisation (like the National University in San Diego with their journal [2]) that wishes to pursue a visibility and PR strategy. Sometimes it is the authors who pay some form of publication charge (dangerous, since the temptation to publish less than perfect papers for financial reasons may be lurking in the background). Sometimes it is the readers themselves, but since most material on the Web is free, the latter model has not really taken off. In all three cases mentioned publications only available on the Web, even if rigorously reviewed, may not been thought to have the prestige of their printed cousins!

Version 2: The journal is available in both printed and electronic form.#

Still the main and traditional model. The printed version is the “money-maker” and the electronic version is just a useful and often ‘inexpensive’ add on - if one also subscribes to the printed edition. The Academia Europaea’s journal “European Review” is perhaps a good example of this approach? The Cambridge University Press as the publisher basically generates the necessary revenues through members payments that are funded by the Academy. The electronic version is free for members of the Academy, but is expensive for those who only want the electronic version. Major publishing groups like Springer, ACM, IEEE etc. use this approach.

A different model is the one used for the JUCS [3]: The electronic version of this journal is free to all. But the journal also exists in printed form, at cost, for those who prefer the printed version. The advantage here is that such journals tend to reach a larger number of readers (with their electronic version) than the printed versions and yet publishers are often not too happy, since the number of subscribers for the printed edition is usually not very large and therefore not profitable. Nevertheless, perhaps this is what might work for our “European Review”? If there are sufficiently subscribers to the printed edition (since many members of the Academy can pay through their library budget and the journal is available through the normal distribution systems of the publisher), those of our senior members who do not want (or cannot afford) to pay high fees will not be cut off, and the journal’s reach may increase as a consequence (by a factor of at least ten).

Summarising this section:#

The internet and the Web have made communication, information distribution and accessibility to personalised “library” type systems, and the opportunities for new forms of collaboration much easier. But, the Web is also responsible for many at least potentially serious problems and we will look briefly at some of these now.

Some Dangers of the Internet and the Web#

The first thing that is noticeable when using the Web, is that the amount of information (guesstimates are 40 trillion documents!) is overwhelmingly (too) big, hence specific information is hard to find. This is why search engines such as Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc. now play such a big and essential role for most users. The problem is that for most queries the big search engines deliver hundreds, if not millions of possible ‘answers’. Of course they are ranked by some (‘mysterious’) criteria. But if we look for the best camera, hotel, or whatever and a particular offered is ranked first, do we know that that offer is best for us (maybe it is just best for the average user)? Even more troubling: how do we know that the item is indeed ranked because of a fair algorithm and not because someone has paid for it? SO the issue is one of trust, quality and validity of the information – we need assurance (if not insurance!).

It is now a matter of fact that when people search for something, they either start using a search engine, or they use Wikipedia. We will quote Stefan Weber: “We are starting to Google reality”. So, if we look up something on the Web, we almost implicitly check the first entries of Google and Wikipedia, and (at least in the majority of user experiences) believe this is reality…when in fact it may well be a “virtual” reality, produced so as to influence us (or the Chinese population - to mention a hot topic) to move in a particular direction. How can we trust a contribution that was written by an anonymous group of persons and that may be changed at any time? It is we think a widely accepted maxim, that to judge an essay it is essential to know the credentials of the person(s) composing it. In the original concept of Wikipedia, everyone was able to (even anonymously) change information at will. This concept even if strange at first glance did seem to work quite well. The general argument was that if enough persons collaborate, then blatant errors will be corrected fast, i.e. contributions will “converge” towards a truth. Although there is some evidence that this works, in many cases serious doubts do remain. Firstly often there is no “truth”. One can look at most topics in a variety of different ways. If a community reaches a “compromise” is this a truth? Is it even desirable? Is it not better to have clear but conflicting points of view, and by knowing the origins of these views one can then make valued judgements?

Secondly, a system where everyone can change contributions in an unstructured way, lends itself to manipulations. If a person has enough money and wants to be famous, make a product famous or even artificially inflate the validity of a research report or paper: that person can just hire ghost-writers who in whatever context, praise whatever is at issue.

Third, how about slanderous contributions? Even if withdrawn there will always remain some doubts. This list could be extended quite a bit! Wikipedia is at last reacting to this (different in different countries) danger, but reaction shows that there are two camps. One is represented by the “Wisdom of the Crowd” concept [4], the second by the “Cult of Amateur Thesis [5]. Without going too deep into the excellent and opposing arguments presented in both books, we want to mention just two examples: The father of the “interactive Web” á la Wikipedia; social platforms like ‘Facebook’ and others - Tim O’Reilly in his book on Web 2.0, supports the “Wisdom of the Crowd” concept through statements such as, “We have finally gotten rid of the tyranny of experts”, to which Andrew Keen [5] answers: “True. And we have replaced it by the tyranny of those who do not know”. The statement by Keen cannot be disregarded lightly when he continues to say that “too much democracy on the Web undermines our culture, replacing quality by quantity and mediocracy”.

Whether one accepts this or not, we should note that a reasonably good Wikipedia has (more or less) replaced an excellent Encyclopaedia Britannica; has killed the famous leading French encyclopaedia, and the largest German encyclopaedia Brockhaus has been sold to a mass-market company, dismissing the excellent, one hundred editorial staff. Whether the 99 cents per song ‘I-Tunes’ behemoth is going to ruin the music industry as we know it, and ‘YouTube’ or its equivalents destroy the film industry, and ‘free’ information portals finish off the quality daily newspapers: well, these are questions where we don’t have definite answers yet, but perhaps enough reasons to worry?

There are many other aspects of the web that are changing our research and educational culture in a way that we may not like. Let us here and at the end just mention two. If students (in high school certainly and also many universities) are asked to hand in an essay, using web sources; then search engines, Wikipedia, and even some supporting websites routinely allow ‘copy and paste’, in a way that is blind to validity, rigour, quality assurance – and understanding. The UK specialist Tara Brabazon [6] brings it to sharp focus with her statement: “Searching is replacing Researching”. She shows with convincing tests, that reading with true comprehension and writing from understanding has suffered a lot because of ‘copy and paste’, by the impact of short message communication, by twitter and other media, when coherent expositions are replaced by small ‘junks of trivial information’.

As professional researchers we also have to worry about plagiarism. If students hand in a paper, do we know that they have not copied it, or parts of it? Or (perhaps) worse, have copied it from material in a language not known to the teacher, have translated it into poor English (or whatever language is the medium) yet with seemingly admirable results, unfortunately not obtained by them. After hundreds of plagiarism cases have been detected, in schools from Stanford to small colleges, one aspect has become clear: a posteriori plagiarism checking with software such as ‘Turn-it-in’ is not enough [7]: only by systematically following the progress of students can we be sure that no cheating was involved.

To summarize this section: #

It is amazing to see how the Web is changing our social culture and the research culture and it should be one important aspect of the Academia Europaea, to follow these developments closely and to actively enter the debate, issue warnings and propose solutions that go far beyond what we have touched upon in this short essay!

We hope that readers will accept our apologies for our inaccuracies and take this essay in the spirit that it was intended: as a stimulant to a range of debates and challenges that the Membership of the Academia Europaea should engage with.


  • [1] Tragic Loss or Good Riddance? The Impending Demise of Traditional Scholarly Journals; Andrew M. Odlyzko; J.UCS 0,0 (1994), pp.4-53,
  • [2] Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching,
  • [3] Journal of Universal Computer Science,
  • [4] The Wisdom of the Crowds"; James Surowiecki
  • [5] The Cult of the Amateur; Andrew Keen; Double Day 2007
  • [6] The University of Google: Education in a (post) information age; Tara Brabazon, Aldershot: Ashgate 2007
  • [7] Learning Ecosystems for Dealing with the Copy-Paste Syndrome; Nara Kulathuramaiyer, Hermann Maurer; Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching, 1, 1 (2008), pp. 1- 24

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