Harnad, S. (1999) The Future of Scholarly Skywriting. In: Scammell, A.
(Ed.) "i in the Sky: Visions of the information future" Aslib, November
The Future of Scholarly Skywriting
Department of Electronics and Computer Science
University of Southampton
SO17 1BJ UNITED KINGDOM
My own corner of what I've called the "PostGutenberg Galaxy" is a relatively
tiny one. Alongside the video, audio, commerce, adverts, chat and
erotica, the scholarly/scientific portion of the Net is like the flea on
the tail of the dog. But that flea is destined for great things, and
humankind will be the beneficiary.
First it has to be clearly understood that the flea differs from the
rest of the dog in one crucial respect, but this difference means that
its future in cyberspace will differ from most of the rest of its
Let's drop the fumigator metaphor. The flea is the refereed journal
literature: At least 14,000 periodicals are dedicated to publishing the
ideas and findings of researchers in all the scholarly fields -- the
sciences, arts and humanities. Now the critical difference in question
is that the authors of all those articles -- unlike the authors of
books, and of articles in trade magazines -- do not write their papers
for royalties or fees; they give them to their publishers for free. The
only reward they seek is the eyes and minds of their fellow
researchers, so that their ideas and findings can have their full
potential impact on the future course of research.
In the Gutenberg era the only way these special authors could bring
their ideas and findings to the attention of their peers -- present and
future, the world over -- was by treating them exactly the way trade
authors did: They gave them to a publisher, who paid the considerable
costs of printing them on paper, and then recovered those costs, plus a
fair profit, by charging for access to the "product" (even though these
nontrade authors did not seek or get any of the proceeds from the
Despite the expense and inefficiency of disseminating their work through
print on paper, and despite the deterrent effect of restricting access
to only those who could and would pay for it (usually in the form of
institutional journal Subscriptions, but lately also through shared
arrangements such as institutional Licenses or Pay-per-view in various
forms -- let us call these S/L/P), scientists and scholars were
well-served by this system in the Gutenberg Era, mainly because it did
disseminate their work, and there were no alternatives.
The PostGutenberg Galaxy offers an alternative. Just as in the paper
era these special authors had (at their own expense) sent free
reprints of their papers to everyone who requested them, so today, these
authors can self-archive their papers publicly on the Web, so all
interested heads and minds can access them from anywhere for free.
In 1999 this is already being done by 100,000 physicist-authors and
35,000 daily physicist-readers in the Los Alamos Eprint Archive
, created by Paul
Ginsparg in 1991. It will be an interesting matter for historians to
unravel why, having been led to the water, researchers in all the other
disciplines have been taking so long to get around to drinking, but it
is a foregone conclusion that they will catch on and do so, sooner or
Once they do, the entire refereed literature will be available to every
researcher everywhere at any time for free, and forever. No more trips
to libraries to chase down a reference (assuming your library can
afford to subscribe to the journal in question at all), no more
distinctions between academic haves- and have-nots when it comes to
being able to keep abreast of the journal literature. In fact, the
literature will be seamlessly interconnected, with hyperlinks from
every paper to every other paper it cites
. Still more
important, the probability that each paper reaches its full potential
readership (and hence makes its full potential contribution to the
future course of knowledge) will be much higher:
Today, the average journal article is cited by no one and read by few.
All papers will not become best-sellers as a result of public
self-archiving, but they will certainly have a much better chance of
having the full impact they were destined to have once the access barriers of
both paper and its costs are out of the picture.
Removing access barriers and putting the entire literature at
everyone's fingertips, however, is just the first step in the scholarly
revolution that is afoot, although it is the crucial one (waiting only
for the academic thoroughbreds to take to the water). For once the
barriers are gone it is not only scholarly access that will skyrocket
as it never could before, but so will scholarly interaction, the
creative interplay between those idea/findings and those eyes/minds
that this whole special subfield of publication has always been about.
For here the handicap was not just the cost barrier, but also the time
Human thought evolved hand in hand with human language. The speed of
thought and the speed of speech are of the same order of magnitude (if
not even more closely coupled). This is because speech evolved in the
service of interactive thought: Interdigitating ideas were better than
solipsistic ones, simmering in just one cranium. Science and scholarship
evolved out of the oral tradition of exchanging ideas and findings by
word of mouth. Writing created a permanent record, which increased both
the scope and the reliability of the tradition. The written word not
only has a broader reach, in time and space, than the spoken one, but it
is also incomparably more disciplined, answerable, and hence objective.
Never mind; we are not here to sing the praises of prior revolutions
(speech, writing, print), but of a future one: Skywriting.
For every self-archived paper on the web is like a piece of skywriting,
visible to one and all, today and forever more. Still more important,
skywriting is there to have further skywriting appended to it (rather
like serial graffiti on a public wall, although the analogy is
otherwise unflattering, and irrelevant when it comes to SCHOLARLY
skywriting, as opposed to mere Netnews-style chat groups that are
really just global graffiti-boards for trivial pursuit).
The paper journal literature could never support interactive
skywriting; its turnaround times were simply too slow. By the time a
published response to your work appeared, you could no longer even
remember what it had all been about! This is nothing like a live
interactive conversation -- and a good thing too, because live
conversations are rambling and unconstrained, alright for conferences
and symposia, but not what one wants a permanent archive to consist of
(as anyone who has read transcripts of live interactions will agree).
But skywriting offers a hybrid possibility, not quite like anything
that came before it: much closer to the live interactive tempo of
spontaneous on-line speech (and hence on-line thought), yet retaining
all the virtues of the written medium (formality, discipline,
objectivity, publicity, corrigibility permanence). For not only is it
possible (within minutes, if one wishes) to post a skywritten comment
in reponse to a piece of skywriting -- something completely impossible
in the paper medium (or even in the online medium as long as it is
criss-crossed with access barriers from S/L/P), but it is also possible
in the online medium to make a piece of skywriting come "alive," even
if its author is deceased, and to interact with it using all the online
dialogic resources for which our brains are specially adapted.
I am referring to a feature that we have all gotten accustomed to using
in the past 2 decades of email and mailing lists without realizing just
how revolutionary it would be if it were being used formally by
researchers at the highest level of peer interaction, rather than just
in private messages to friends or in public chat groups in which the
blind lead the blind
The quote/commenting capability with online digital texts -- the
convention we use in email, in which excerpts from your message to me
appear indented and preceded by a ">" sign, followed by my comments
(and the possibilities of further iterations and embeddings of this,
for which we have not yet developed the codes or the modes, but will)
-- is the hybrid capability I have in mind, but its revolutionary
potential will only become apparent once the peers of the realm have
finally opted to drink from the water to whose brink they have now been
led. My guess is that their productivity will increase by an order of
magnitude once they deign to drink.
Harnad, S. (1990d) Scholarly Skywriting and the Prepublication Continuum
of Scientific Inquiry. Psychological Science 1: 342 - 343 (reprinted in
Current Contents 45: 9-13, November 11 1991).
Harnad, S. (1991b) Post-Gutenberg Galaxy: The Fourth Revolution in the
Means of Production of Knowledge. Public-Access Computer Systems Review
2 (1): 39 - 53 (also reprinted in PACS Annual Review Volume 2
1992; and in R. D. Mason (ed.) Computer Conferencing: The Last Word. Beach
Holme Publishers, 1992; and in: M. Strangelove & D. Kovacs: Directory of
Electronic Journals, Newsletters, and Academic Discussion Lists (A.
Okerson, ed), 2nd edition. Washington, DC, Association of Research
Libraries, Office of Scientific & Academic Publishing, 1992); and
in Hungarian translation in REPLIKA 1994; and in Japanese in "Research
and Development of Scholarly Information Dissemination Systems 1994-1995.
Harnad, S. (1992c) Interactive Publication: Extending the
American Physical Society's Discipline-Specific Model for Electronic
Publishing. Serials Review, Special Issue on Economics Models for
Electronic Publishing, pp. 58 - 61.
Harnad, S. (1995c) Electronic Scholarly Publication: Quo Vadis?
Serials Review 21(1) 78-80 (Reprinted in Managing Information
2(3) 31-33 1995)
Harnad, S. (1995f) The PostGutenberg Galaxy: How To Get There From Here.
Information Society 11(4) 285-292. Also appeared in:
Times Higher Education Supplement. Multimedia. P. vi. May 12 1995.
Harnad, S. (1995g) Sorting the Esoterica from the Exoterica:
There's Plenty of Room in Cyberspace: Response to Fuller.
Information Society 11(4) 305-324. Also appeared in:
Times Higher Education Supplement. Multimedia. P. vi. June 9 1995.
Harnad, S. (1995h) Universal FTP Archives for Esoteric Science and
Scholarship: A Subversive Proposal. In: Ann Okerson & James O'Donnell
(Eds.) Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads; A Subversive Proposal for
Electronic Publishing. Washington, DC., Association of Research
Libraries, June 1995.
Harnad, S. (1995k) Interactive Cognition: Exploring the Potential of
Electronic Quote/Commenting. In: B. Gorayska & J.L. Mey (Eds.) Cognitive
Technology: In Search of a Humane Interface. Elsevier. Pp. 397-414.
Harnad, S. (1996a) Implementing Peer Review on the Net:
Scientific Quality Control in Scholarly Electronic Journals. In:
Peek, R. & Newby, G. (Eds.) Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic
Frontier. Cambridge MA: MIT Press. Pp. 103-118.
Harnad, S. (1997a) How to Fast-Forward Serials to the Inevitable and
the Optimal for Scholars and Scientists. Serials Librarian 30: 73-81.
[Reprinted in C. Christiansen & C. Leatham, Eds. Pioneering New Serials
Frontiers: From Petroglyphs to CyberSerials. NY: Haworth Press.
and in French as "Comment Accelerer l'Ineluctable Evolution des Revues
Erudites vers la Solution Optimale pour les Chercheurs et la Recherche"]
Harnad, S. (1997c) The Paper House of Cards (And Why It Is Taking So Long
To Collapse). Ariadne 8: 6-7.
Harnad, S. & Hemus, M. (1997) All Or None: No Stable Hybrid
or Half-Way Solutions for Launching the Learned Periodical Literature
into the PostGutenberg Galaxy. In Butterworth, I. (Ed.)
The Impact of Electronic Publishing on the Academic Community.
London: Portland Press. Pp 18-27.
Harnad, S. (1998) Learned Inquiry and the Net:
The Role of Peer Review, Peer Commentary and Copyright.
Learned Publishing 4(11): 283-292
Shorter version in 1997: Antiquity 71: 1042-1048
Excerpts also appeared in the University
of Toronto Bulletin: 51(6) P. 12.
Harnad, S. (1998d) For Whom the Gate Tolls? Free the Online-Only
Refereed Literature. American Scientist Forum.
Harnad, S. (1998e) On-Line Journals and Financial Fire-Walls.
Nature 395(6698): 127-128.
Harnad, S. (1998h) The invisible hand of peer review. Nature [online]
Duranceau, E. & Harnad, S. (1999) Electronic Journal Forum: Resetting
Our Intuition Pumps for the Online-Only Era: A Conversation
With Stevan Harnad. Serials Review 25(1): 109-115
Harnad, S. (1999) Advancing Science By Self-Archiving Refereed Research.
Science dEbates [online] 31 July 1999.