Session Report: The panelists for this session presented a spectrum of views on the current and future directions of electronic publishing and distribution. Although the session's focus was on communication in the sciences and technology, many of the ideas presented apply beyond that domain. Ellis Rubenstein provided the viewpoint of a major primary deliverer of scientific information, Donald Johnson that of a large aggregator of government publications, and Ann Weller that of the end-user of electronic publications. As a group, the speakers presented an image of a world changing rapidly, one which moves publications beyond static, independent, representations to more dynamic, richer information resources presenting readers with a new context.
Rubenstein described his vision of a publication like Science Magazine as providing a "knowledge environment" with much broader accessibility than could be provided in a world of print publications and knowledge stored in the minds of isolated individuals. This developing knowledge environment provides both broader access to knowledge and better integration of information. One example given to illustrate the potential of this vision was the way in which the 1996 Genome Map (published in Science Magazine) was converted to an electronic representation for the online journal, but also enhanced for both lay readers and researchers by adding links to resources on genetic counseling, genetic diseases, sequences, and more.
Johnson described the changes the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) is experiencing as a traditional aggregator of published information. NTIS has fully converted their process for handling incoming publications to generate digital images for all publications handled. Because of this, requests received via Internet can be fulfilled within minutes of receipt. Meanwhile the role of NTIS as a service provider to Federal agencies has developed into one of facilitator of publishing and host for electronic publishing. This means that it is easier for the user to access Federal information (one-stop shopping) and easier for NTIS to create collections of related information.
The needs and concerns of the user did not go unrepresented in this session. Weller argued that the current universe of electronic resources presents three faces to potential users or readers: the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Already quality resources are available that act as a down-payment on the potential of electronic publishing. Broad accessibility to significant content is a reality now. However, many problems still need resolution. These include: the learning curve, diagnosing computer problems, understanding error messages, adjusting to new and changing features, understanding manuals, navigating through different systems, printing and finding short cuts. Despite these unresolved issues, the potential beauty of electronic resources is evident in the ways that already many scholarly research processes can be integrated easily and almost completely through existing computer systems.
Two themes emerged repeatedly during the presentations. First, collaboration appears to be widespread on this emerging frontier. Staff at Science Magazine is working closely with other publishers, librarians, and Web content providers to add value to electronic publishing for readers. Librarians will play a major role in assisting publishers and distributors in organizing content and developing further linkages between information resources. The National Technical Information Service (NTIS) is working collaboratively with non-governmental organizations, other Federal agencies, and customers to create connections between communities.
Interactivity emerged as another common theme. Interactivity can describe the way readers interact with electronic publications, but also describes a process of increased ability to share information across boundaries. Science Magazine is working to connect researchers and lay people and also researchers in different scientific communities by creating multiple layers of content appropriate to different levels of familiarity with the research reported or even with science generally. NTIS is working to develop new ways in which to provide information from inside the Federal government to interested parties outside the government and to build connections between Federal government information and related private sector information. For instance the new International Trade Bookstore will exist both physically and virtually, functioning to provide convenient access to trade-related information from Federal agencies and various nonprofit organizations such as Rand or the Brookings Institute.
As reactor, Hurd pointed out that it is clear that a fundamental transformation is underway in the communication of scientific and technical information. Change is occurring both technologically and socially. One of the important needs is to provide bridges from the old world to the new by keeping the best features of paper while added significant enhancements. Users are being motivated to migrate to the new electronic environment by changes in the basic capabilities of technology, the increasing need for collaborative research in science, and economic pressures.