electronic papers and availability

Robert Poole eis at IX.NETCOM.COM
Wed Mar 19 23:32:51 CST 1997


I would like to make a couple of comments on two related topics that are
currently being discussed on taxacom; the availability of a thesis and
electronic publication.

I have recently finished a project (Nomina Insecta Nearctica) that produced
a check list of the insects of North America.  During the production of this
database, I had to examine several thousand publications.  I was
particularly lucky to have the library and reprint facilities of the
Smithsonian, the National Agriculture Library, and the Library of Congress
to work with.  Perhaps no other place in the western hemisphere has such a
richness of library resources, and still a significant percentage of the
publications I needed were not available in these three places.  It is an
unfortunate fact of systematics that a good deal of the significant
literature in the field is in obscure or difficult to obtain publications.
If this was true for me, you can imagine the difficulty of working with
systematic information for anyone without a significant library to help
them.  It is also true that extensive libraries are expensive to obtain and
maintain.  This cost may be hidden from the user of the library, but ask
your librarian sometime.  I'm sure he or she will be more than happy to
explain the cost problem to you.

I am against considering a thesis as an available publication in the legal
sense because it is almost always not available in the practical sense.  To
me, the practical availability of a document is a far more important
consideration than its legal availability.  The strongest argument for
electronic documents on the web, or its successor, is their general
availability to anyone, anywhere.  I am aware that not everyone can afford
to be connected to the web.  In North America anyone can be connected to web
given a computer, modem, and $20.00 or so a month for a connection to a
service provider.  But even in those countries where the cost of the
computer and the connection are too expensive, getting these people
connected seems like a much cheaper and more likely solution than trying to
build up extensive library facilities, particulary with the peculiar
historical requirements of systematics.

Papers on the web is particularly attractive solution to the availability
problem because they can be posted either as html documents or downloaded
through FTP in some format such as Page Maker and printed at will in as many
copies as necessary.

I believe that the argument that the technology keeps changing is specious.
People seem to keep confusing the information with the technology.  If the
information is valuable, it will be upgraded as the technology changes.
This is what has happened with all of the commercial databases that are out
there.  Format changes are not all that difficult to deal with, although
they can be expensive.  In databases, for example, almost all of the
database programs (main frame and personal computer) allow interchange of
data through delimited text files despite their respective formats.  Many of
the newer programs even allow interchange of data between different formats
and computer programs invisibly within the program.

Finally I would like to end this extensive treatise with a personal story.
A few years ago I was married to a woman who was on the faculty at a small
university in the Patagonian Andes.  When I went to Argentina to get
married, the members of her department asked me to autograph their copy of
an ecology text I had written during my earlier years.  Of course I said yes
(I was flattered).  They then hauled out a xerox copy of the book (all five
hundred pages).  The moral was that the university did not have a large
library or the money to buy
much in the way of books or journals.  However the university was connected
to the internet.  The moral of this story is that if information was
published on the internet, it would be available to them.  Presently most
systematic information is not available to them or to most people and places
in the world.  We are, unfortunately, still at the stage where
bioinformatics for most people in systematics consists of a postdoc and a
xerox machine.  While I may have lost my 20% royalty on the afore mentioned
book, I am very concerned about making biosystematic information more
available to those who need it.  I see no alternative to making them
available electronically.  It will not be cheap, but the alternative is far
worse.

Robert W. Poole
Entomological Information Resources
P.O. Box 4350
Rockville, Maryland 20849-4350
eis at ix.netcom.com




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