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Posts tagged ‘computers’

The “demise” of scientific journals

I’m sitting here, working on a feature article that required me to do a lot of research in scientific journals going way-back-when. And I notice that one of the articles I’m citing, from an issue of Nature back in December 1970, is followed on the same page by another essay titled “Demise of Scientific Journals.”

Now, I don’t have the full journal-related essay, because I didn’t think to download the whole thing while I was at the library, and my in-home access to Nature doesn’t let me go back that far. Still, I am intrigued.

The “Demise” article is not credited to an author by name, just to “our Washington Correspondent.” He (I’m assuming the correspondent was a “he” — this was in 1970, after all) quotes a then-recent study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The NAS committee predicted that “journals will eventually be rendered obsolete by the computer console, although it may take ten years before each major research centre in the United States possesses a suitable terminal, a further decade for small groups of scientists to come to own consoles and yet another ten years to provide links with other continents.”

Hmm, let’s think about that. This article was written about 18 months after humans first landed on the Moon. I’m sure that people back then were still making pretty optimistic projections about Moon bases and Mars expeditions.

Ten years after the NAS committee … that would be 1980, and mainframe terminals (think VAX) were in colleges and universities, I’m sure. However, students still typed up their term papers on typewriters and went to the library to make photocopies of journal articles.

Ten years after that … takes us to 1990, and scientists certainly had their own personal computers on their desks at work, and probably at home too. Or they might have had Sun Microsystems workstations that were networked together. There was even a way to send “electronic mail” or “e-mail” messages to colleagues at other institutions, although the protocols for getting messages from one computer network to another could be cumbersome. (Quite a few pages in the 1993 membership directory of the American Astronomical Society were devoted to translating addresses to and from ARPAnet, Bitnet, JANET, NSFnet, SSL, etc.)

Ten years after that … by 2000, communications “with other continents” was definitely old hat!

And scientific journals still exist. I think there are more of them than ever before. If you’re already a journal publisher, it’s easy to start a “virtual journal” that’s online-only and/or aggregates articles from related journals in the field. Scientists all over the world are publishing up a storm, and the “information superhighway” gets bigger every year.

So … Nature‘s prediction turned out to be way too conservative. However, while we were advancing the computing and communications technologies much faster than anticipated, we didn’t get around to building those Moon bases and exploring Mars. What happened there?