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Digitizing the Coin of the Realm

Electronic publication has transformed the culture of scientific communication

Francis L. Macrina

That Was Then

Twenty years ago, you would have used your personal computer solely as a means to prepare your manuscript. In 1991, when it came to scientific publication, computers weren’t much more than word processors. But the winds of change were already blowing, and some aspects of the electronic preparation of your 1991 manuscript did portend things to come. Computers were making it easier to create complex, high-quality illustrations. You would have used a software program to compile your list of literature cited and to insert citations into your manuscript. Such programs provided relief from the burdensome job of building reference lists, and they were harbingers of the effect digital tools would have on scientific publication over the next two decades.

For historical perspective, consider the following 1991 truisms. Communication by e-mail was growing rapidly, but e-mail attachments were still a few years away. Manuscript submission and review were solidly grounded in paper and the postal service, but facsimile machines were beginning to accelerate the process. The rise of electronic journals and open-access publication were years in the future. Unless you were in the computer sciences, you probably had not heard of the World Wide Web project. Digital photography was an emergent technology, but the Adobe corporation had only recently launched version 1.0 of Photoshop. And the now-ubiquitous Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) did not yet exist. You can expand this list yourself, but I trust I have made my point. These elements have all contributed to the rapid transformation of scientific communication.

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