The Role and the Promise of Electronic Publishing in Paleontology

Norman MacLeod and R. Timothy Patterson

Norman MacLeod. Department of Palaeontology, The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London, UK SW7 5BD
R. Timothy Patterson. Ottawa-Carleton Geoscience Centre and Department of Earth Sciences, Carleton University, 1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa, Ontario, K1S 5B6 CANADA

PE NOTE: some links in this article no longer exist 6/2013

To some, electronic publication holds the promise of speeding the process of technical communication among scientists and making new technologies available for their use. To others it's a publishing gimmick that threatens the quality of scientific publications, the sanctity of the peer-review system, and–to a greater or lesser extent–part of the economical underpinning of scientific societies. Obviously, we don't subscribe to the latter point of view. But since Palaeontologia Electronica is the world's first electronic paleontological journal it is fair to ask what all the fuss is about. Is there a need for this type of publication within the paleontological community? What advantages will accrue from its creation? Will there be any disadvantages? How will it work? How will it affect existing paleontological societies/journals? Is this the right time for such an endeavor?

Why An Electronic Paleontological Journal?

On the whole, the scientific community has already embraced electronic publications as an effective means of technical communication (Nature 1997 vol 389, p. 137-138, Sept. 11, 1997 issue and Palaeontologia Electronica Annotated Web Sites). It is widely recognized that there is no substantive difference between electronic and print publishing in terms of most scientific publishing conventions (e.g., peer-review, editorial oversight, copy-editing). In terms of need, the primary rationale for Palaeontologia Electronica is the same as the need for electronic publishing in general, or indeed, the Internet itself; access to advanced communications technologies along with quality, speed, and accessibility of the resultant publication. Direct evidence for this need can be found in (1) the amount of paleontological information already available electronically (see PE Web Site Reviews Page, PaleoNet [West], PaleoNet [East], Yahoo [science/earth science/paleontology]), (2) recent on-line initiatives of paleontological societies/journals (see PaleoNet [West], PaleoNet [East]), (3) the number of visitors to the pre-publication Palaeontologia Electronica Information Site (14,000) as well as their comments, (4) emerging traditions in other scientific disciplines, and (5) electronic publishing initiatives by major commercial scientific journal publishers. In terms of content, we would argue that there is always a need for well-written summaries of current research by those who are actually involved in the research. This is true for all areas of science; especially those as innovative and popular as paleontology.

Does Electronic Publishing Hold Any Unique Advantages For Paleontology?

We see electronic publishing in general, and Palaeontologia Electronica in particular, as being able to help reverse a worrying trend in paleontology — the decline in outlets available for taxonomic monographs. Systematic research has traditionally comprised an extremely important component of paleontological research. Unfortunately, the economics of publishing is jeopardizing the future of this important aspect of paleontological publishing. In the print realm, the problem with these publications is their expense (owing to the size of the text and typically large number of plates/illustrations) and limited audience. In principle both of these issues can be addressed by electronic publications. It is true that the current ICZN and ICBN rules disallow the naming of new species in electronic media. Nevertheless, given the popularity of the emerging electronic publishing industry, it seems inconceivable that this rule will be retained once the electronic publication archiving issue has been addressed. In the meantime, taxonomic reviews are possible that do not name new taxa, or which are published in tandem with papers in print journals that fulfill the ICZN and/or ICBN requirements.

dino1aElectronic publishing also offers much more graphical flexibility than print publishing. This is of critical importance to paleontology, where pictures are often worth more than thousands of printed words. "Publication quality" images can be coupled directly to manuscripts in an intuitive and non-linear manner that facilitates viewing and comparison (see Fig. 1).   Until the movement to high bandwidth cablenet systems has been completed, there will be a trade-off between digital image resolution and network download time. However, the flexibility of the WWW allows multiple copies of the same image to exist within any paper. This means that the user can have access to a full spectrum of graphical information from low-resolution, fast loading, thumbnail versions of images (for quick inspection), through normal resolution versions that are typically indistinguishable from their print counterparts, to high-resolution versions (for taxonomic specialists) that would include levels of detail not possible in the current industry-standard half-tone prints. At the highest end of the image-resolution range, collections of photographic-quality digital images can be assembled and placed in an ftp file to be downloaded directly to the user's hard disk during times of slack web usage. Palaeontologia Electronica's extensive collection of mirror sites (insert appropriate link) will serve to increase accessibility and minimize download times for most users. Moreover, there is only a marginal additional cost (in terms of download time) for using color as opposed to black-and-white images in electronic publications. Thus, graphics in an electronic paleontological journal can be designed solely with the interests of the scientific arguments (as opposed to the author's, publisher's, or subscriber's budgets) in mind.

Aside from the standard print fare of text and illustrations, electronic publication offers a wide range of new communications technologies. Some of these have been used to great effect in both private and institutional WWW pages, while others await their first application to paleontological materials. The migration of these technologies into technical publications is inevitable and should lead to many interesting experiments. Areas such as animation, simulation, modelling, morphometrics, phylogenetics and various forms of quantitative and statistical analysis are sure to benefit from the emergence of electronic publishing.

In our science, these topics fall under the general subdiscipline of analytical paleobiology, which at the present time is one of the fastest growing paleontological subdisciplines. Since print-publications cannot integrate these technologies, we expect that a form of publishing "character displacement" will come to pass over time, with different types of papers being published in print and electronic paleontological journals. Palaeontologia Electronica will encourage active experimentation with these technologies (see Monks and Young, 1998) and we are committed to staying abreast of developments in relevant technological areas so that we can provide the necessary levels of technical support to our authors and readers.

How Will It Work?

Palaeontologia Electronica is committed to preserving as many paleontological publishing traditions as possible in its style, editorship, and organization. We do not seek change solely for change's sake. All technical contributions will be reviewed by independent and anonymous specialists. Palaeontologia Electronica has an extensive panel of associate editors whose duties will include providing names of qualified reviewers to the editors and helping explain the merits of various technical points with which the editors may not be familiar. Contributions to other portions of the journal (e.g., book reviews, web site reviews) will be primarily the responsibility of the editors assigned to those sections.

Palaeontologia Electronica's executive editors are responsible to a board of directors that includes representatives of all sponsor societies. There are two levels of Palaeontologia Electronica sponsorship. Tier 2 sponsors contribute mirror sites and/or various services to the journal (e.g., translations) in return for being allocated space within the journal. Tier 1 sponsors contribute mirror sites and/or various services plus a fee to offset technical costs in return for being allocated space within the journal, having authors of technical papers assign copyright to one of the Tier 1 sponsors, and being granted the right to reproduce and sell the CD-ROM Palaeontologia Electronica archives (see below).

Palaeontologia Electronica will be published in a series of issues with no more than four issues appearing in any calendar year. Internet access to all materials included in each issue will be completely free of charge, though reproduction and/or subsequent use of all published materials will be subject to the normal copyright restrictions. Once a year's issue is complete it will remain accessible for an additional year, after which it will be removed from the WWW, written to a CD-ROM, and delivered to the Tier 1 sponsor societies. These archive CD-ROMs will be made available for sale to libraries, institutions, and individuals by Tier 1 sponsors. In this way Palaeontologia Electronica will be able to provide free access to its contributions during their primary useful life, while preserving the long-term financial interest of the Tier 1 sponsors through the sale of the archive CD-ROMs.

What Does It Mean?

With the release of this inaugural issue we believe a new chapter in the history of paleontological publication begins. The increasing use of e-mail, listservers, and the WWW by both professional and amateur paleontologists has already changed our science. Palaeontologia Electronica represents an attempt to wed the technological innovation available through electronic communications technology to accepted paleontological publishing traditions.

Since Palaeontologia Electronica has no print counterpart, there will never be a need to make decisions that might limit the journal's electronic development in order to avoid compromising the scientific or economic position of a print partner. For all technical papers, alternative files will be provided to enable Palaeontologia Electronica readers to download and make a hard copy print of the text and all static graphics using their local facilities. Nevertheless, all contributions appearing in the journal will be written, reviewed, and edited with the electronic medium foremost in mind.

Because of the Internet's inherently borderless nature and Palaeontologia Electronica's open access publishing policy for the first publishing year of each issue, the journal will serve as an important crossroads for the international paleontological community. To this end the titles, keywords, and abstracts of all technical publications will be translated into Spanish (courtesy of the Sociedad Española de Paleontología), French (courtesy of the Canadian Association of Palynologists) and German (courtesy of Heinz Hilbrecht, ETH, Zürich). In addition, Palaeontologia Electronica's uniquely international sponsorship group should provide fertile ground for testing the feasibility of international cooperation between paleontological societies in areas of mutual interest.

Perhaps most importantly though, Palaeontologia Electronica will serve as a new and highly effective means of communication between diverse groups of people sharing a common interest in paleontology. In its most obvious manifestation, Palaeontologia Electronica will facilitate the scientific discussion of new results and ideas by enabling professionals to debate the merits of the arguments presented in technical reports online, either through the discussion pages that accompany each report or via direct e-mail communication with the report's authors. This will turn the publication of research results in our science from a largely static exercise to a dynamic engagement within a (potentially) large section of the paleontological community. Even more importantly, just as the Internet fails to recognize geographic and national distinctions, it also fails to recognize distinctions between "professionals" and "amateurs," "teachers" and "students," etc. In principle anyone can subscribe to a print-based professional paleontological journal or read a copy in their local library. However, as we all know, these publications are rarely accessed by those outside of the professional paleontological community. Popular science magazines (e.g., New Scientist, Earth) often feature paleontological stories, but in the overwhelming majority of cases these are filtered through the intermediary of professional writers who are not scientists. Because it will be so much easier to find and access, we expect Palaeontologia Electronica to be read by a much larger (and more representative) portion of the overall paleontological community than is currently the case with print-based paleontological journals. Since Palaeontologia Electronica is committed to the publication of technical and review papers by the paleontologists who actually do the research, it will provide a direct doorway between the world of paleontological research and the larger culture in which that research is inevitably embedded. Palaeontologia Electronica's outreach (and inreach) potential for the paleontological community should not be underestimated.

In short, Palaeontologia Electronica was conceived to make a difference in paleontology. Although we have never heard it stated quite this way, it seems obvious to us that paleontology is as much about people as it is about fossils. PalaeontologiaElectronica is intended to advance that link to its next level by marrying traditional paleontological publishing to the revolution in electronic communications technology in such a way as to substantially broaden the impact of contemporary paleontological research on the global paleontological community and the larger culture.

If you are interested in fossils, in natural history or in science, join us in this initiative. Read Palaeontologia Electronica. Discuss the issues raised in its pages by contacting the editors, the authors, or posting reactions to your favorite paleontological listservers (see PaleoNet [West], PaleoNet [East]). If you are engaged in paleontological research, consider submitting a technical contribution (Instructions to Contributors). If you know of a paleontological web site, new book on paleontology, or a meeting of interest to paleontologists, let us know so we can organize a review.

We hope Palaeontologia Electronica will educate, challenge, and inspire (just as the current print-based paleontological journals do), but accomplish these goals in a way that can be appreciated by a larger and more international audience. All public domain publications (print or electronic) are reflections of the communities they serve. We think Palaeontologia Electronica can reflect a much larger part of the paleontological community to itself and to the emerging global electronic culture than can be done using print media. It is not our intention to replace print-based journals or the societies that sponsor them. Rather, we will work to make sure that the best paleontological research, technologies, and information are all available on the Internet, just as they are already available in bookstores, in personal libraries of paleontological professionals, and at professional paleontological meetings.

If you want the best of online paleontology by paleontologists, Palaeontologia Electronica is the place to come.