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Editorial: Publishing or perishing in an online world

by Geoff Hart (with input from Marilyn Barrett-O’Leary, Laurel Busch, and Dan Wise)

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2001. Editorial: Publishing or perishing in an online world. the Exchange 8(3):2, 5.

In April 2001, Nature launched an online debate on a hot topic in scientific publishing: the impact of online publishing of original research. Stimulated by a challenge to create immediate, unrestricted access to the primary literature, the debate became a spirited exchange. Whatever the final outcome of the debate, we’ll unquestionably see more scientific information moving online as the Web becomes an increasingly important part of our personal and professional lives.

In this issue, Dan Wise and Marilyn Barrett-O’Leary share the lengthy task of reviewing the online discussion and summarizing both sides of the debate. I hope their hard work will stimulate a fruitful discussion among Science SIG members, whether here in the newsletter, in our online discussion group (see page 8 for details), or in both forums. I find this topic particularly interesting in light of the impermanence of online information. Learning how to cite online information is easy enough, since many guidelines now exist (e.g., Thibault 1998), but whether to cite them poses a far more difficult problem: If the purpose of reference lists and bibliographies is to help readers find original sources of information, how do readers cope when the online information disappears?

Laurel Busch reported that about half the URLs cited in the journal articles she edits no longer exist by the time the articles are accepted for publication. Davis and Cohen (2001) confirm this finding: in student papers written between 1995 and 1999, only 18% of the URLs in papers published in 1996 still led to the correct online documents, versus only 55% for papers published in 1999. As an editor, should you let authors include the citations, with full knowledge that much of the information will soon become unavailable to readers, or reject citations of online reference material?

Treating such material as personal communications certainly reflects their transient nature, but sidesteps the problem. Instead, I propose something more radical: create a precedent by insisting on a practice parallel to that used for PhD and other dissertations, in which the sponsoring university archives the materials in their library. For example, a university press, aided by a skilled librarian, could insist that any Web-based material cited by an author be provided to the university library for archiving—probably in print, initially, but as libraries evolve into places where electronic information achieves status equal to that of printed information, a CD or other digital archival copy should also be required. Subsequent literature citations would include the standard author/date/title/publisher information, plus an indication of where the material is archived so researchers can obtain copies by e-mail or via interlibrary loan.

Jon Shear, a local filmmaker was quoted as saying, “I vowed [that] if I complained about things more than three times, I had to do something about it.” Maybe it’s time we took Jon’s advice.


Davis, P.M.; Cohen, S. 2001. The effect of the Web on undergraduate citation behavior 1996–1999. J. Am. Soc. Information Sci. and Tech. 52(4). (Summarized online at

Thibault, D. 1998. Bibliographic style manual. Section 3. Electronic documents. National Library of Canada, Ottawa, Ont. 7 p.

My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved