The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science

"Science exists because scientists are writers and speakers. . . . There are no boundaries, no walls, between the doing of science and the communication of it; communicating is the doing of science. . . . Publication and public speaking are required forms of professional competence—nothing less."
—(from chapter 1)

Science Online

An excerpt from
The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science
by Scott L. Montgomery

Chapter Fourteen
The Online World: Using the Internet

A New Medium with New Messages

Let us begin again with history. It shows us two things: first, that the forms for communicating knowledge have evolved continually from the birth of writing, about 3200 B.C., to the present; second, that there have been times when specific new media have appeared—the scroll, the codex, the printed page, and now electronic display—and changed profoundly how people record and exchange learning. These realities suggest that the Internet will continue to develop for some time, and it will do this alongside existing forms of exchange, not as a full-fledged replacement of them.

Many people, scientists included, have claimed the Internet as the next great revolution in human communication. Whether this is true cannot yet be said with certainty; we are too much in the midst of it all. It may turn out that the online world constitutes a new direction in a more long-term move from printed to electronic forms (telegraph, telephone, sound recording, video, computer). But there can be no question that the Internet is an innovation of enormous impact and thus import—to science, perhaps most of all.

Why science, above all? There are several reasons. One is the enhanced contact among researchers throughout the world, enabling new collaborations and the transfer of information to a much wider audience. What has been termed "the invisible college" of science has therefore expanded tremendously, with many productive results for research. Another reason is the Internet's ability to distribute research in almost any form, including text, video, audio, and any type of image, fixed or animated. This is a crucial factor, not to be underestimated: the role of various media in science is more important than ever, and has been greatly expanded by the advent of digital ways of embodying knowledge. Various types of complex visualization, for example, are now at the heart of many fields.

Online publication, meanwhile, can handle enormous amounts of data—raw and analytical—without increasing physical storage space, but with greatly enhanced searching and indexing. It can shorten or even eliminate the lag time between submission and release, typical of print journals. It may also prove helpful in dealing with the "serials crisis" now besetting research institutions throughout the globe, a crisis of costs (escalating subscription rates, growth in the number of journals, reduced budgets) that has forced libraries to be ever more selective and thus incomplete in their collections. Finally, the Internet may well prove able to give rise to new and unpredictable forms of science altogether. Versatile, fast, expansive, and cutting edge: the Internet is an exciting set of opportunities for researchers to explore.

Issues for Online Science

These same powers have resulted in new problems and issues, too. Most basic of all, perhaps, are concerns over copyright and proprietary information. The Internet allows for instant duplication and nearly infinite distribution of any data or written material in digital form. Moreover, the fluidity of Internet communication renders more tenuous the very definition of a legitimate scientific publication. Legitimacy, after all, has traditionally come from certain institutional factors: peer review, editorial control, document stability, guarantee of persistence, and copyright. All of these emerged under the rule of print; most have been in the immediate control of editors and publishers (for better or for worse). Some (peer review and editorial control) have translated to the Internet without too much problem where online versions of print journals are concerned. But these represent only a small percentage of the total new range in scientific publication. There are also new electronic-only journals, preprint archives, personal Web pages, research newsletters, e-mail documents, and other opportunities for publishing. Such material does not yet have an agreed-upon status. In some cases, it counts as sanctioned research; in others, no consensus yet exists.

Documents on the Internet are not necessarily stable like those in print. This is because the Internet itself is not stable. Any text can be revised over time, updated with new data, expanded through the inclusion of reader's comments, taken apart and reassembled. How, in such cases, is one to determine an official version, for example, for citation purposes? Then there is the very important problem of archiving—keeping scientific e-documents available in perpetuity, at a specific location (e.g. Web address). Should we, as scientist-authors, be able to retain sufficient rights so that we can include our own articles on our own Web pages, or others of our choice? Such are among the many issues that need resolution.[1]

But if the fluidity of the online world has given new uncertainties to scientific publishing, it has also added strength to a traditional reality. The Internet has deepened, not weakened, the centrality of the written word in modern intellectual society. There is now a vast and growing array of new outlets and forms of knowledge, true enough. But this knowledge remains utterly dependent on written language, for this is primarily how society continues to embody intellectual work. The Internet may be digital, electronic, and "nonlinear"—but it depends utterly on the inscribed message. The conclusion to be reached from this is clear: if the pace of science is increasing, so too are the demands on scientists to possess adequate writing skills.

Status of the Art: Some Major Trends

To try to describe the status of science on the Internet, from the writer's point of view, is to take aim at a moving target. Moreover, it is a target that changes both shape and speed with each passing year. Safe to say, however, at the beginning of the new millennium, that online science is moving rapidly toward the center of communication in every major field: physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy—you name it. Any scientist who is not ready to utilize this medium will therefore soon be left behind in significant ways.

What are some of the major trends in Internet science? E-mail is now a primary mode of both informal and formal contact between researchers and others involved in scientific enterprises. Immense amounts of raw and interpreted data are now available in online archives from academic, governmental, and industry sources. Unprecedented bibliographic resources—some with the ability to locate, retrieve, and deliver not just citations but abstracts and full-text articles from a vast array of periodicals—have been created and made available. Nearly every major journal now has its online version. Many of these, in fact, are more extensive, interesting, and informative than their print cousins. Large portions of the scientific literature have been transferred to the Internet, often with varying degrees of success. Once-firm boundaries between primary and secondary have dissolved, as journals have taken up aspects of newsletters and vice versa; as data archives offer reviews of the current literature; and as the Web sites of individual researchers include everything from published and preprint articles to course outlines and opinion pieces.

Publishing material on the Internet, especially the Web, is not yet cheap. One of the largest expenses in print publication is labor—people doing the work of copyediting, proofreading, formatting, and other tasks associated with quality control. This work is not eliminated by the online universe. Moreover, there are new costs in preparing e-documents, whether this involves designing Web pages, coding text, or scanning images. Then there is the expense of putting material on the Internet through a server, and keeping it there indefinitely. On the other side, potential readers must have access to a recently built computer with an Internet connection and the proper software—something that is very far from universal in the scientific world beyond the edges of the major industrialized nations.

There are, moreover, certain signs that Internet publishing is still at an early stage. Much of this is related to technology, but not all. Downloading data and articles can be a slow, laborious process, due to large file sizes, restricted modem speeds, and heavy site use. There are still a number of different formats in which text, numerical information, and images may occur. The lack of any standard in this area means that information does not always translate well, or at all, between computer systems. This can require scientists and universities to purchase redundant software in order to ensure the widest access to needed data.

Things also tend to mutate on the Internet very quickly. Web addresses, new journals, online articles, and much else can shift or vanish without warning, due to ordinary institutional circumstances, such as loss of funding or personnel changes. This leads to the phenomenon of the dead link—the hyperlink, either within a document or in a listing of sites, that goes nowhere, for example, to a "Web page cannot be found" type of message. This is surely one of the most frustrating parts of the online experience, and one of the most common. Finally (but this list is not complete), there is the problem of searching—Internet searches still comprise a very rough art at best and often require trial-and-error iterations.

As a new mode of communication, the Internet may well be "revolutionary," but like all revolutions, it is messy, changeable, and beyond the control of any single entity. Scientists (like everyone else) should be aware that however smooth and magical it may seem, the Internet is not really virtual—it is the expression of people performing certain tasks, with certain equipment, under certain conditions. It is no more "without walls" than a laboratory.

Existing Resources: What There Is and How to Search for It

I have mentioned several sources where scientific information is published on the Internet. There are others, too. A basic list, roughly in order of importance to writers, includes the following:

  • Online journals, newsletters, magazines, publishers
  • Preprint archives (papers written but not yet formally published)
  • Major bibliographic resources
  • Professional society and association sites
  • University department sites
  • Library sites (academic, governmental, independent)
  • Data archives (domestic and international)
  • Personal Web pages of scientists
  • Government agency and program sites (NASA, NOAA, DOE, etc.)
  • Research program sites
  • Industry sites (individual companies, consortia, etc.)
  • Research institutes
  • Local scientific society sites
  • Observatories
  • Image catalogues and archives

This list offers some idea of the scope that now exists. It is no longer possible, in most fields, to comprehensively survey relevant sites, as there are simply too many. Moreover, these resources are extremely variable, both in content and in quality: some provide raw data by the hectare, others little more than a visual brochure for a particular program, publisher, or department. Unfortunately, there is no simple way to separate shells from seeds in this endless garden of seeming delights.

Scientists need to be aware of several basic ways to look for specific material. For literature searches, and for tracking down abstracts and even full-text articles, you're best bet by far is to use one of the major online bibliographic resources—nearly every field now has one. These have quickly become invaluable reference and research tools, offering unprecedented access to an enormous spectrum of information. Some have been around for years—Agricola (journal articles and book chapters acquired by the U.S. National Agricultural Library), BIOSIS (comprehensive coverage of international life sciences literature), MEDLINE (coverage of more than 3,900 journals in biomedicine), Geobase (citations and abstracts in geographic and geologic sciences), and Georef (international geologic sciences literature). But many others, specific to particular fields, research areas, and specialty topics have sprung up. Here are just a few examples: AIDSLINE (journal articles, theses, technical reports, meeting abstracts, books, and audiovisuals on AIDS and related topics—now merged with MEDLINE); Physical Review Online Archive (American Physical Society's effort to put all APS journal material online, covering the years 1893 to the present); Aquatic Sciences and Fisheries Abstracts, ASFA (covering every aspect of aquatic science); PsycINFO (citations, summaries of journal articles, book chapters, books, reports, etc. in psychology-related areas); TOXLINE (toxicological, pharmacological, biochemical, and physiological effects of drugs and chemicals). Readers should note that the specific contents and Web addresses for these resources may change over time. As pointed out, the Internet remains a fast-changing medium, subject to many influences.

Most universities, research institutes, and companies performing frontline investigation now subscribe to several of these resources. In the case of major universities, the list is likely to be large indeed, and growing. Every scientist should be aware of what is available to her or him, both in her or his chosen field and related fields as well. As always, explore, explore. Learn how to use these resources; it will grant you new powers and efficiency.

For other material on the Internet, two basic options are available. You can first try one of the mass-market search engines (e.g. Google, Infoseek, Yahoo, Lycos, Searchalot, Alta Vista, HotBot, etc.). Chances are, however, that because of how these work—most look for your entered terms in any text on any Web page—you are likely to wind up with a motley selection. Putting a phrase in quotations ("molecular modeling software") will tell these engines to look for your topic exactly as written; but here, too, you may end up with pages that only mention these words, rather than actually provide the needed material.

A second, and generally far more effective, approach is to find a type of "gateway" or "portal" site in your particular field—a site, that is, containing a large list of links to more specific sites—and to begin your real search here, bypassing the majority of irrelevant material.

Such gateways take a variety of forms. The simplest can be found under headings like "Science" that appear on the Web pages of the major search engines: clicking here will bring you to a roll call of separate fields, then subfields, then individual resources. Other, more "professional" portals are likely to exist on the home pages of university departments in your field, professional associations (e.g. American Chemical Society), and major research libraries, such as the National Library of Medicine in the United States—any of these will be a good place to start. Similarly, the Web pages of relevant government agencies and research programs, and (do not overlook this) the personal Web pages of influential researchers, will probably include an inventory of selected links to useful material. Finally, indexes—stand-alone sites that offer sometimes huge lists of sites, hopefully annotated and grouped into categories—can be very helpful, once you've located them, explored what they have to offer, and know their strengths and weaknesses.

Possibly most helpful of all are what might be called general resource collections, a breed of Web site that, in time, may supersede all others in utility. This kind of site gathers together a wide variety of links related to exactly the type of information scientists want on a regular basis: research tools (databases, downloadable software, etc.); online journals; summaries of the current literature; reviews of new books, software, and labware; news and commentary related to the profession; conference reports (including audio recordings); job postings; classifieds; and more. This type of gateway is obviously an excellent idea, and it is something that only the Internet makes possible. Depending on who maintains the site, access can be free or available through subscription. Those put up by researchers or university departments tend to be free. Sites maintained by major publishing houses, on the other hand, are not cheap but do provide a lot of content (a good example, for the biomedical field, is BioMedNet, at, put up by Elsevier Science Ltd.). As always, it pays to investigate what is out there and to be selective.

In every case, think of your search as a type of bibliographic exercise, requiring both cunning and endurance. Looking for data can be akin to finding a book whose title you do not yet know. As with library research, it usually helps to locate the series of "shelves" (resource sites) that hold books in your area of interest—and then to go through them, possibly one at a time, until you find what you need. Be prepared: certain books may be "out" or "missing"—the phenomenon of the dead link continues to abound. If an index or gateway leads you here fairly often (say 20% of the time), abandon it and go elsewhere, for it probably isn't updated regularly. Be aware, too, that many resource lists are now huge. Thus, your quest may end up a small project of its own—but with very worthwhile results.

Online searching therefore involves exploration, with all its attendant difficulties and discoveries. Be prepared for frustration—but also for unexpected riches. Above all, do not anticipate instant results. When it comes to Internet science, patience is not merely a virtue but a required tool. There is no substitute for personally learning the lay of this ever changing and evolving landscape.

E-Mail: Benefits and Cautions

E-mail is truly a new and very flexible mode of communication, and an enormously powerful one for researchers. It has probably had more immediate effects upon contemporary science than any other aspect of the Internet.

E-mail is at once extremely easy to use, instantaneous, and potentially global. Its ability to establish new contacts, and to maintain existing ones, is unparalleled. Its power to exchange information among individuals, groups, and institutions is bounded by neither time nor place. E-mail encompasses both informal and formal types of expression—all levels of written communication in fact, as well as nonverbal forms. If it has partly replaced the telephone and fax machine for quick contact, its ability to send attached files has made it a preferred method for submitting abstracts and articles to conferences, journals, and publishers, as well as a regular method for sending all manner of data files. For these main reasons—ease of use, global exchange, rapidity of transfer, and flexibility—e-mail is now the most widely employed form of communication among scientists generally.

There are several limitations to consider, however, and these are important, especially for writers. First, e-mail is not (yet) universal; one must obviously have access to the proper equipment and connections, and large portions of the scientific world still lack these. Second, the technology is not perfect, especially when it comes to transferring files. Depending on your connection, even moderate-sized files (e.g. three to five megabytes) can take a long time (up to 20-30 minutes or more) to download, particularly during periods of high traffic. This will undoubtedly improve over time, with faster connections and broader bandwidth; but don't look for improvements to happen overnight.

Then there is the question of "personal style." Because it is so immediate, e-mail writing lends itself to great variations in personal tone. Some researchers choose to write a blunted, telegraphic prose; others use a friendly, conversational manner, as if speaking over a cocktail. Still others tend toward a tone similar to a formal letter. Most scientists probably alternate between these and other styles, depending on the occasion. As a result, certain mismatches can occur, for example when an affable message of several paragraphs is given a curt, one-line reply, unsigned. This sort of thing can cause bruised feelings, even problems of respect.

Therefore, two points need to be made. First, don't take offense automatically. An e-mail persona may reflect how its owner views the medium itself (e.g. as a simple messaging service rather than a chat opportunity), not you or your message. Second, and conversely, think before you write, and reread before you send: consider whether or not it's a good idea to answer that brief request for an abstract with an extended discussion of your recent fishing trip to Montana, complete with attached photographs (in color, of course).

There are, too, certain codes of e-mail behavior that you need to know. Various print and online guides exist in this area (e.g. The most frequent problems involve use of capital letters. Putting a sentence or word in all caps is not the equivalent of adding an exclamation point: it is much closer to raising your voice, even yelling. Therefore, employ this with caution and emotional intelligence.

Above all, remember that e-mail is not conversation. Anything you put down is recorded, and as such, can be sent elsewhere, printed out, and extracted from the hard drive of your computer or that of your recipients, at a later date (erasing a message doesn't make it disappear). In short, e-mail is potentially public. Again, think before you write and send.

Partly because of these realities, e-mail is now covered under U.S. copyright law. All messages that originate within the United States are protected under this law, and anything you write can be kept confidential—if this is agreed upon beforehand by you and the recipient. Copying (quoting) small portions of any message is allowed only to the extent permitted by the fair-use provision of the copyright law (e.g. quotes from books in reviews). This means that posting an entire e-mail of another author without consent constitutes a legal violation. Although, in my experience, this is done quite often without much thought, it can be subject to prosecution. Therefore, it's a good idea to ask before you share someone's comments or information with others.

In the end, the e-mail universe reflects the complexities of the social dimensions to scientific work. While many scientists (and scholars generally) treat it very loosely, this universe does depend on certain rules and conventions. It is always a good idea, therefore, to be aware of what you are saying, how you are saying it, and who you are saying it to. A number of researchers I know force this upon themselves by beginning a message with "Dear . . . ," thereby making it plain that they are not just chatting but producing actual hard copy.

E-Journals in Science

By far the most significant challenge to the older ivory-tower journal system, with its cumbersome lag time, is the peer-reviewed e-journal. This has rapidly and unevenly become a major medium for disseminating research throughout the scientific world. Only a few years before this book was written, there were probably less than 100 e-journals in total. Now there are thousands, with a growing number of e-only versions. Indeed, whatever new opportunities the Internet may provide, it is clear that the journal article, in something not too distant from its present form, will remain the nucleus of the corpus scientia for some time to come.

E-articles can be, and sometimes are, much more than their static print equivalents. They can contain hyperlinks to any cited literature, to authors' e-mail addresses, or to relevant online data sites. They can therefore render the reference list of old into a completely new and extremely useful portal. The e-paper can also include animated graphics, movies, and sound files, which is a great advantage to many fields where studies of natural motion, evolving states, or sophisticated modeling are important. E-articles can also be expanded to include reader commentary and debate (a number of e-journals openly encourage this). All these possibilities are currently being used and explored.

Any e-journal, then, can encompass such possibilities in multiple form. This type of publication is thus far more than a journal per se; it is something closer to a type of virtual research forum. The better funded and more stable of these now commonly have most or all of their back issues online and offer search functions for the entire archive. They provide links to many related e-journals and other resources. Many allow users the option of subscribing to the journal itself (most often at a cost), to a weekly or monthly e-mail message containing tables of contents (usually free), or to a periodic listing of abstracts (free or at reduced cost). All this can be very helpful, though it doesn't quite replace in ambience that trip to the library reading room.

In specific format and style, e-journals vary more than their printed relatives. Many now offer articles in one or both of two text formats, which have become the most popular in use. These are HTML (HyperText Markup Language), the coded language of the Web, allowing for the inclusion of hyperlinks and offering maximum flexibility in terms of text, but limited ability to handle mathematical symbols and formulas; and PDF (Portable Document Format), which is a scanned-in version of a printed document and is largely "dead text," easy and familiar to read but clumsy to handle and unable to take advantage of the Web's most interesting and advanced features. Each format has its pluses and minuses. HTML can be decoded by any Web browser, but converting a digital file to this format can be a labor-intensive, time-consuming process. PDF documents are often large, require additional software to read (freely available, however, from, and cannot include hyperlinks, animations, or other sophisticated aspects.

The great majority of e-journals will tell you up front what they make available for free and what they don't. Most offer open access to their tables of contents and abstracts. Full-text documents, however, are usually restricted to subscribers—to print versions, or to print and online versions together—though a sample issue or two may be available for viewing. Online journals with free access to all content do exist and have become more numerous. Don't assume, out of hand, that any of these are less worthy than electronic versions of print journals. Many are now subjected to the same rigors of peer review and quality control, so that the level of scientific data, analysis, and text are all high. The principal obstacles to the success of any such open-access e-journal have to do with persistence—who will continue to pay for it?—and acceptance—who (how many) will read it, submit to it, cite articles from it.

One of the great hopes frequently expressed on behalf of the e-journal is that it will eventually solve the "serials crisis," in part by transferring scientific publication back into the hands of learned societies and individual scientists. As it stands, printed scientific periodicals are overwhelmingly in the control of a few giant publishing houses, who frequently charge very high prices ($500-$2,500/year) for material that is essentially submitted and reviewed for free. Many scientists have become disturbed at the thought of having to buy back their own work at such rates. When joined with the sentiments of librarians, such perceptions have tended to seek alleviation in the many prophecies attached to Web publishing—those, for example, that promise scientists can take back control and offer journals, archives, and other data at very low cost. Experiments along these lines are ongoing; some have been successful, some not.

The bottom line is that nothing on the Internet is ever free or wholly automatic. Most of the labor needed to publish any article in print still applies to Web journals—especially those that are peer-reviewed and editorially quality-controlled—plus there are the new tasks associated with Web page design, archiving, updating, and more. The visual immediacy of the e-journal erases most traces of the work and expenditure required to make it a reality. But scientists shouldn't be fooled: publishing on the Internet requires support from somewhere. This does not mean that online publishing can't solve the serials crisis—on the contrary, it is clearly the greatest hope in this area. It does mean, however, that solutions will be neither immediate nor without cost, but will require cooperation, inventiveness, and commitment.

As writers and potential writers, scientists should take whatever time is needed to investigate e-journals in their field and to get an idea of their current status. These journals clearly form a crucial publishing element in the future of professional science. As more and more of them become fully accepted in the existing system of status and reward, and as they succeed in modifying this system in unforeseen ways, science will grow and progress, just as it did with the advent of print.

The Preprint Archive

Beginning in the early 1990s, a new type of archive was pioneered at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico (it has since moved to Cornell University, at, and is supported by a cooperative agreement between the National Science Foundation and Cornell). Led by physicist Paul Ginsparg, a team of researchers built an online repository of preprint research articles, run by automated software that handles acceptance, searching, and retrieval. Articles represent the very latest work; they are complete but have not yet been accepted for publication in a standard journal. They can be submitted in several ways, including e-mail, and retrieved using different aspects of the Internet (Web, FTP, e-mail). The basic intent is to provide a forum for new work in as timely a manner as possible. A particular preprint article remains in the archive until published, at which point it can either be removed or retained, at the author's discretion.

Though some concern was expressed early on about quality control, copyright, and other issues, within the physics community the idea caught fire. By 1996, the Los Alamos archive served over 35,000 users from more than 70 nations, with as many as 70,000 electronic transactions each day.[2] Even at that time, in other words, it was the most widely used forum on the globe for accessing research results. Today, the archive contains hundreds of thousands of articles, spanning a host of fields in physics and physics-related fields (biophysics, atmospheric and oceanic science, geophysics, chemical physics, medical physics, etc.), as well as mathematics and computer science. The concept of a preprint repository, in other words, has proven enormously attractive to scientists in many disciplines, and continues to expand its overall reach. Hundreds of universities worldwide now link to the Los Alamos site. There are also dozens of preprint bulletin boards, running the same software. Smaller archives, specific to individual fields, have been set up.

Yet the future of this type of archive, as a new standard, is far from certain. In some fields (notably chemistry), journal publishers have moved to restrain its use, mainly through the claim that appearance in this forum constitutes a type of "publication, thereby rendering the material off limits for consideration in other outlets. To demand that submitted material be unpublished is standard among primary technical journals, of course. The question is what status should be accorded the electronic preprint: is it a true "publication" or not? This problem did not exist for physics, because of timing: the Los Alamos archive was set up in 1993, when very few physics journals existed online, and, in any case, is a government facility, supported by government funds.

If they become more widespread, preprint repositories could be an enormously powerful tool for science. For readers, the advantages are obvious: immediate, 24-hour access to the latest research, in familiar and usable formats, a year or more before such work can appear in print. For writers, meanwhile, the benefits are possibly even greater, including as they do all of these benefits, plus the ability to reach a much larger audience, on a timetable that the researcher can dictate. Scientists in general benefit greatly from having the very latest research at their fingertips, as this keeps them at the forefront and prevents them from duplicating the work of others. In several ways, then, the preprint archive could provide an excellent way for scientists to take control over the availability of their work.

As always, however, there are limitations to consider. The most important is that, in the current reward system, preprint articles are unlikely to count toward tenure or other career advances, at least in any immediate way. To a large degree, a preprint archive relies upon the greater scientific community to make judgments about validity and value. But how are such articles used, exactly? How should they be cited, or should they be? Uncertainty in status makes such questions inevitable and difficult to answer, at least for the time being. Ironically, it may be the opposition from print journals that finally determines them to be true publications. In the end, researchers should be aware of this new forum and perhaps investigate its availability and status in their own field. As with most things related to the Internet, the landscape of the preprint archive will continue to evolve in coming years.

Newsgroups: A Means of Informal Publication

Newsgroups form a separate portion of the Internet from e-mail and the Web. They employ a system known as UseNet (short for Users Network), which links subscribers into a single, defined community of active communicators.

A newsgroup is an online peer group. Members post queries for discussion, respond with answers or further questions, provide relevant articles, give Web addresses to appropriate sites, and do more—all within a specified subject area, whether this be a technical field, an interdisciplinary topic, or a particular phenomenon. Nearly every field and subfield in science now have one or more newsgroups. Some include thousands of subscribers; others, less than fifty.

When and if you join such a group and begin to participate in its discussions, it is important to keep in mind that anything you post goes to all subscribing members. It can therefore be printed out, copied, and redistributed, unless there are specific rules against such actions. To help ensure quality control, many newsgroups are moderated; some even have a formal review process for individual queries and responses. A fair number are unmoderated, however, so that there is no guarantee that postings are accurate or even relevant. In most cases, however, subscribers to scientific newsgroups are serious professionals. Nonetheless, as with e-mail, it is always a good idea to think before you write, and to read over what you've written before you send it out into the world.

Newsgroups can be an excellent forum for keeping in touch with latest developments, for trying out and exchanging new ideas, asking for feedback, searching for hard-to-find data, or being directed to useful Web sites. The major scientific disciplines (physics, biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy) all have dozens, even hundreds, of newsgroups dedicated to everything from the latest research findings to media coverage, new technology, education, and job openings. Anyone is free to inaugurate a newsgroup on a topic he or she thinks will be of interest to others. Lists of newsgroups in your area can be found either through a gateway site (e.g. they are often included on university-department or professional-association Web sites), through librarians at your institution, or in printed Internet directories now available. You can also search for newsgroups using the UseNet function of any major search engine.

Advice to the Scientist-Author

What has been said above should give you some idea about the various opportunities for publication on the Internet. In fact, let me emphasize again that sending any information through the Internet means you are entering it into the realm of public exchange. Keep this in mind; it will help guide your professional conduct in this new and still somewhat unsettled medium.

When looked at with a level eye, Internet publication does not really appear more variable than in print (if we consider all modes of printed contact among researchers). But it is less certain in status. We still live in a universe dominated by hard copy—this is a practical necessity, given the current state of technology, the structure of our institutions, and how professional life is conducted.

At present, the "safest" mode of Internet publication, particularly for career reasons, is in refereed e-journals. Many of the same practical factors exist here as for print: be sure to consult the information to contributors that specifies length, style, document formatting, submission procedures, and so forth, which you must follow for your document to be seriously considered for publication. Most e-journals now also contain specifications for how to reference online material, including e-mail and newsgroup messages. If any of this is ever in doubt, send an e-mail message to the journal (addresses are usually found at the bottom of its home page) asking for clarification.

If you have the means and know-how, and the journal is amenable, submit your material in HTML, as this will make your article much more useful and interesting and flexible, available for future updating and improvement. The journal may, in fact, do this for you. But it is also to your advantage to learn how to do it yourself (a variety of different software editors for HTML can be found at most computer stores, and make the process relatively painless). Some understanding of how to use HTML will place you in the forefront of Web communication, specifically, and will give you certain powers over your own material, including the power to self-publish. Note that authors frequently insert hyperlinks to figures, references, their own e-mail addresses, their institution's home pages, and whatever else a journal might allow. Even more useful, from your reader's point of view, are links to documents in the reference list: being able to jump directly to a full-text version of a cited article is an enormous advance that Internet communication offers. While copyright and economic realities are likely to prevent this from becoming total and universal (a link to every cited reference in every article), it still offers something previously almost inconceivable. Moreover, it is now possible to add a new type of citation list altogether to online articles, consisting of links to papers that have subsequently cited your original. The creation of such online "citational communities" must be considered an exciting new bibliographic capability offered by the Internet.

Though the academic tenure-reward system has not yet fully caught up with reality, e-journals represent a growing piece of the scientific future. As a researcher, don't overlook this new forum as a source for publishing your results.

Even admitting whatever problems and caveats still exist, the online world holds out a bewildering and magnificent array of possibilities for scientific publication. In some ways, it returns us to the origins of the scientific article itself, to a time when a new set of expressive opportunities first appeared on the scene, introducing both order and chaos into the domain of shared knowledge.


  1. All of these issues have been extensively discussed in both online and print literature. One of the most thorough overviews can be found at the Web site of the International Council for Science Press ( See, especially, the proceedings of the various listed meetings and the online booklet Guidelines for Scientific Publishing, available in both HTML and PDF formats.
  2. These figures are taken from the article "Winners and Losers in the Global Research Village" by Paul Ginsparg, available online at The article was originally given as an address at a conference on Internet publishing held at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, 19-23 February 1996.


Copyright notice: ©2002 Excerpted from pages 183-98 of The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science by Scott L. Montgomery, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2002 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of University of Chicago Press.

Scott L. Montgomery
The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science
©2002, 232 pages, 16 line drawings
Cloth $45.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-53484-8
Paper $15.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-53485-5

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science.

See also: