(J. Schmidhuber, December 2001)

The world of scientific publishing is changing. Journals are struggling to keep up with the emerging digital public archives. See the open letter to publishers signed by some 30,000 scientists, and the Budapest initiative by the Soros Foundation.

The situation in theoretical physics heralds the things to come in other fields. In the early 1990s the physicists were the first to institutionalize electronic publishing at the particle collider CERN in Switzerland, where the very World Wide Web was born. Astonishingly, computer science itself is a late-comer in this area. In theoretical physics, priority in the digital public archive has become pretty much the only thing that counts. Leading journals were forced to shorten the subsequent peer review process down to 2-3 months (!), otherwise most citations would go to digital preprints instead of journal papers.

More and more frequently, journal editors are bidding for papers, approaching authors of interesting preprints and encouraging them to submit a version to their journal, listing rapid review among the incentives. Go to the journal evaluation page of Marcus Hutter to insert your own experiences with journal review times.

Journals are quietly tolerating the numerous authors providing direct access to their peer-reviewed journal papers via their own WWW servers. Why? Because the success of a journal is correlated with its impact factor (number of citations per article), and the editors know exactly that online papers on average are cited more frequently than others, for obvious reasons.

How important is the peer review system anyway? Rustum Roy & James R. Ashburn (co-author of the 1:2:3 superconductor paper) recently wrote (Nature 414:6862, p.394, Nov 2001): "...many leaders [...] such as Nobel laureates [...] regard peer review as a great hindrance to good science [...] An enormous amount of the best science has been and is run without the benefit of this rubric, as is the worldwide patent system [...] Everyone except the true believers know that it is your nearest competitors who often `peer' review your paper [...] The enormous waste of scientists' time, and the absolute, ineluctable bias against innovation, are its worst offences. `Review by competitors' is an all-too-accurate description of this system, wreaking devastation on papers and proposals [...] ... should not repeat the old canards such as:" despite the problems thrown up by peer review, no serious alternative has yet been proposed." Nonsense. They have not only been proposed but have been in regular use worldwide for a very long time. The users include the world's largest research agency [...] and industrial research worldwide." I omitted many statements - do read the full letter.

Of course, sometimes peer review can be extremely useful. Authors often do thank the referees for their comments. On the other hand, one beneficial and novel aspect of digital public archives are cost-free time stamps in cases where peer review by rivals does become an obstacle. Anonymous delay tactics seem more frequent than open priority fights, which do occur not only in physics and biology/medicine (where many are working on the same hot topic and often huge sums are involved) but also in computer science and machine learning, and even in math, "queen of sciences," and even among giants, e.g., Newton vs Leibniz.

It is a safe bet that soon almost all scientific publishing will take place on the WWW, sometimes with peer review, sometimes without.

The benefits to scientists in developing countries who cannot afford expensive journal subscriptions are obvious.