The PaleoNet Forum: An Irregular Electronic Journal
April, 1996: Volume 2, Issue 4

The Inevitability of Publishing Electronically About Palaeontology

M.C. Boulter

Palaeobiology Research Unit, University of East London, Romford Road, London E15 4LZ,

For those of us using this new medium there can be no getting away from the fact that electronic publishing of palaeontological work is inevitable. Recent debates on PaleoNet have summarised some of the challenges: quality control, availability, cost, recognition, and such like. However it is debated, it will happen, so we had better get on and do it.

Some of the most recent contributions to the discussion have been about the general problems that are raised when setting up an electronic journal (New Yorker, May 13th) while in Science magazine (February 9th) examples of such publications that exist in some scientific disciplines are described and discussed. These can be exclusively electronic, but most copy all or part of the content of established printed journals. For instance, all but one of the Academic Press stable of journals (several hundred strong), are now fully available on the internet.

If we listen to some of the cautionary arguments that have been offered in these discussions, and respond to them positively, then we can be on the way to offering a prestigious new forum for the presentation of first rate palaeontological science. Here, I would like to offer some suggestions about how we might proceed, and to show willing I have also offered an electronic manuscript, which Norm MacLeod has sent to two anonymous referees. Such experimental contributions as these through the pages of PaleoNet might test the ground (i.e., make enough mistakes) to help establish a really useful journal.

One important factor to take into consideration in the establishment and editing of any electronic palaeontological journal is the composition of the audience who will access this resource and their reasons for doing so. Many items of palaeontological interest are already available on the internet and the access logs of these reveal a fascinating comparison of cultures, especially shown between the North American and the European audiences. On the International Organisation of Palaeobotany's server (see below) there is a place for browsers to leave messages for one another, called PalaeoTalk. Since it was set up 93 messages have been left and they originated from the following regions

North America - 54
Europe - 29
Australia - 5
Japan - 3
South America - 1
China - 1

The style and content of the messages also shows interesting differences. For example, 14 of the 54 North Americans are students, 5 are amateurs, 2 are anxious parents helping the children with their homework, and 7 are scientists from other disciplines. Very few of these kinds of people have contributed from Europe. Throughout, the American style is friendly, informal and straightforward, as are their presentations on the web. On a continent with huge distances, a strong work-ethic and classless competitiveness the internet is highly appropriate and invaluable. Elsewhere, especially Europe, old ways die harder, and the relatively shy formality is striking.

A brief selection of palaeontological presentations on the web further illustrates my point. Faunmap (including a North America Quaternary mammal database), the Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems (ETE) site, and the Past Global Changes (PAGES) site are examples of paleoclimatology-orientated programs. Curatorial details of specimens in some collections at the Smithsonian Institution, Berkeley, and the Peabody museums have been available through gophers for several years; far in advance of European museums. At Bristol, M.J. Benton has enabled all Fossil Record 2 (published in 1992 by Chapman & Hall) data to be downloaded and has cladogram directory databases on-line. The International Organisation of Palaeobotany also has a large taxonomic and occurrence database of extinct plant taxa, together with several other experimental presentations such as palaeo-geographic maps, taxonomic descriptions and interactive links with other servers. And now in Germany there is the well established journal Palaeontologie, Stratigraphie, Fazies on-line.

Despite these encouraging examples, most of the large institutions concerned with palaeontology and evolution are still undecided about their policy to the quickly developing electronic medium. They are worried about what they might be letting themselves in for financially and are afraid to make the first step. So far, they are taking the easy way out of the dilemma of what to offer without charge, by giving priority to their institution's public relations before any positive scientific contribution. Their caution is understandable because this new medium promises all kinds of new difficulties. Many may be as yet unknown.

At the other end of the spectrum, and giving just as much of a challenge to established practice, are some non-institutional internet presentations. These represent the independent internet user and have little or no control from policy-dependent groups. The intellectual consequences and the other challenges of this lack of organised institutional policy is a major part of the new culture and this is being reflected governmentally, administratively as well as scientifically. With this lack of dependence on groups of political and intellectual control, but full dependence on the internet together with applets of analytical algorithms, they are beginning to perform their own analyses on data they have selected.

Of course, traditional hard-copy journals are still needed. These have occupied the centre of our system of scientific communication for more than 200 years. As well as being convenient and popular they are part of the structure of palaeontology's bureaucracy, administration, government, and commerce. Surely print journals will continue to serve as the major source of information and opinion for at least several more years. Whether they will be able to survive in their present form well into the next century, however, remains and open question.

For the time being electronic articles will be most appropriate for interactive issues, large amounts of data, theses and images. So, let us begin the experiment. All we need are suggestions for draft editorial policies, rigorous refereeing procedures, and simple systems of distribution over the internet for text, images and maybe even data structures that can only exist in electronic form. It will be interesting to see how many palaeontologists have the courage to submit manuscripts, how those manuscripts are evaluated, and how many are ultimately accepted for publication.

There is a strong argument to institutionalise such an electronic journal, to connect it to an existing palaeontological society such as the Paleontological Society or the Palaeontological Association (or because the internet is international, both of these and all the others). There can (and should) be an ISSN number, a CD-ROM version, an editorial board and many other attributes if there is suitable experienced administrative and financial support. However, the internationalism of the internet and its strong sense of institutional independence is likely to make any electronic palaeontological journal difficult to organise.

Whichever organizational mode (e.g., multi-society sponsorship, single society ownership, independent) the first electronic palaeontological journals adopt, there will be many other problems that will still need to be faced and resolved. For example, how to maintain a stable, permanent master source, the control of copyright, the role of institutions such as museums, let alone publishers. And of course, the ever-present issue of money. But, with the spirit of cooperation and compromise that is characteristic of the palaeontological community, I'm confident that these issues can be resolved. All that is needed is the will to try.

As a first step toward illustrating the unique advantages the electronic publications will bring to our science, I invite you to examine an example of a truly interactive palaeontological paper - the first of its kind in our field, at least so far as I am aware. Along with a technical discussion of web-related database issues, this contribution includes a demonstration of how the new Java programming language will enable you to down-load software from our server to yours, add your own data or our database, perform your own data manipulations, and view the results of your data manipulations on your computer screen. [Note: This demonstration requires that your web browser supports Java. At the moment this capability is most easily obtained by using the Netscape 2 browser on a Windows 95 system.] If you don't have access to such a browser you will still be able to read the text and follow the examples provided with any standard graphics-capable web browser. However, I do encourage you to take the time to view the Java demonstration program, especially if you've never seen Java in action. Unless I'm much mistaken, you will find the demonstration itself, and its implications for the coming brave new world of electronic paleontological publishing, interesting.

Click here to manipulate palaeontological data (you need a Java-enabled browser on an NT/Win95 or Macintosh etc. platform.)


The author would like to thank H. Fisher, D. Gee and D. Hewzulla (London) and L.Werdelin (Stockholm).


Click here for information about The PaleoNet Forum, including instructions to authors.
Click here to view back issues of The PaleoNet Forum.