Nature has an article on the 20th anniversary of the ArXiv preprint server by its founder Paul Ginsparg. That’s gradually worked its way through many parts of physics and mathematics to become a major route for releasing scientific results. (They’re now getting about 7,000 submissions a month, with a million downloads a week). But many areas of science remain untouched:
Physicists were quick to adopt widespread sharing of electronic preprints, but other researchers remain reluctant to do so. Fields vary widely in their attitudes to data and ideas before formal review, and in choosing to share electronic preprints, each community will have to develop policies and protocols best suited to their users. A talk I gave in 1997 to a group of biologists helped catalyse the resource now known as PubMedCentral — run by the US National Institutes of Health. I served on the initial advisory board, which soon decided not to host any unrefereed materials, even carefully quarantined, in part for fear of losing essential publisher participation. There remain many legitimate reasons for individual researchers to prefer to delay dissemination, from uncertainty over correctness, to retaining extra time for follow-ups, to sociological differences in the way publication is regarded — in certain fields, the research somehow doesn’t count until peer reviewed.
No community that has adopted arXiv usage has renounced it, however, so the growth has been inexorable. . .
But back in its early days, it looked like it would be even more inexorable than that:
The idea that print journals had outlived their usefulness was already in the air in the early 1990s. David Mermin memorably wrote in Physics Today in 1991: “The time is overdue to abolish journals and reorganize the way we do business.”1 By the mid 1990s, it seemed unthinkable that free and unfettered access to non-refereed papers on arXiv would continue to coexist indefinitely with quality-controlled but subscription-based publications. Fifteen years on, researchers continue to access both, successfully compartmentalizing their different roles in scholarly communication and reward structures.
The transition to article formats and features better suited to modern technology than to print on paper has also been surprisingly slow. Page markup formats, such as PDF, have only grudgingly given way to XML-based ones that support features such as manipulable graphics, dynamic views, linked annotations and semantic markup. . .
Well, in chemistry, that transition has been even slower. Our field is still very much dominated by the societies (ACS, RSC, etc.) and the commercial publishers like Elsevier, Nature, Wiley, etc. When’s the last time – when’s the first time – you heard of a significant organic chemistry paper appearing anywhere else? There’s absolutely no equivalent of the ArXiv system, and although I know that the question has been asked before, I’ll ask it again: why not? If someone had started such a thing back in the early 1990s, would it (could it) have taken off? Or are there other factors that would have kept it from doing so (the same ones as now?)