A journal, like an organism, lives when it continues to change and adapt. At the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, Albert Einstein Institute in Potsdam, Germany, we believe we can use the World Wide Web to make a journal truly live.

We are developing Living Reviews in Relativity to meet the needs of scientists studying general relativity, the theory of gravity devised by Albert Einstein. An overarching goal of relativity research is to increase understanding of the relationship between forces of gravity and other fundamental forces of physics, such as electromagnetism. Researchers working in relativity study phenomena such as black holes, gravitational waves, and the Big Bang.

Relativity is a dynamic research field. Work is strongly affected by developments in other disciplines such as astronomy, mathematics, high-energy physics, and computer science. Physicists who work in relativity must keep abreast of a large volume of rapidly changing research. Relativity theory develops rapidly, and the field is affected by developments in other disciplines, so amassing a comprehensive, up-to-date, central bibliographic database of literature relevant to relativity has so far been intractable. So relativity researchers depend on review essays that offer critical analyses of key literature and explain the significance of important research results. The review article, a comprehensive, high-quality, current analysis of reports of new research in the field, is a staple of relativity research.

Today reviews in the field of relativity may be found in two forums, printed in journals and delivered as plenary talks at major conferences.

But neither forum is completely satisfactory for rapid and widespread dissemination of that new information within the community. Attendance at relativity conferences is limited, and publication of conference proceedings is a lengthy process. Print journals have their own problems. Subscription costs for scientific journals have risen to the point where many libraries, especially those in developing countries, can no longer afford subscriptions. Too, researchers are dissatisfied with the length of time it takes for articles to reach print. The delay between submission and publication leaves many authors and researchers feeling that by the time an article goes to press, it is out of date. That second frustration is particularly problematic for review articles, since they are written only after articles appear in journals, and with their publishing delays the information may be years old.

The costs and timing of print publishing have forced physicists in all areas — relativity included — to rely increasingly on e-mail preprints. (A preprint is a paper that is ready for submission to a print journal.) Preprint exchange had become such an institution in physics research by the early 1990s that Paul Ginsparg was able to create a preprint infrastructure with the online Los Alamos Preprint Archive. The archive started with high-energy physics, and now covers about 22 different subject areas and serves over 35,000 worldwide users daily. [*]

The majority of working physicists submit papers to the Los Alamos Archive, which has become so valuable that citing preprints by their Archive number is a perfectly acceptable and common practice even in print publications. Because the Los Alamos Archive is the best source of current research, and because the archive is extensive in its coverage, it is widely used by those working in relativity.

However, the Los Alamos Archive does not itself assess articles before they are made public. The purpose of the Archive is the rapid communication of research results. There is no formal mechanism within the Archive for editorial control, the control that checks for clarity of language, accuracy of information, etc. In some senses, though, that control is not completely lacking in the Archives. Authors are able to change their articles, and many use that opportunity to replace their original submission with the version that is eventually published in a print journal; the Archive indicates that a given preprint has been published and provides the journal reference. [**]

Of course, articles that are rejected for publication are not necessarily removed from the Archive. In the cases of preprints that do not have the additional sanction of having been accepted for print publication, the quality and accuracy of the information they contain can be a bit ambiguous. Users particularly informed about a topic have a sense of whose work they respect, and therefore have internal filters to judge the quality of a preprint. However, for someone unfamiliar with the science it is difficult to sort through the wide variety of papers on a topic. Thus, the Los Alamos Archive in some senses intensifies the need for current review articles. [**]

Jumping on the Online Bandwagon

Major scientific publishers such as the American Physical Society and the Institute of Physics are putting their wares on line. Those publishers vary in their approaches to online publication, but standard features include:

  • unrestricted access to abstracts of published articles
  • unrestricted access to lists of articles accepted for upcoming editions
  • the ability to gather authoring information and submit articles via the journal's Web site
  • the inclusion of color pictures and movie clips that are not available in the print version
  • password-protected access to the full text of articles for subscribers to the journal's print version
  • the ability to download articles, most often restricted to subscribers to the journal's print version

It is interesting to note that many publishers of print journals treat the World Wide Web only as a way to promote and deliver their print publications. While an occasional publisher adds some functionality to the online version, for the most part articles are delivered electronically with the expectation that they will be printed by the reader.

Some major publishers claim that by using the Web they reduce the time between article submission and publication. Even if that is true, it does not solve the problem of relativity researchers who need review articles. Most online physics journals publish original research. Review essays providing comprehensive assessment of original research and evaluating particular articles are not currently online. The electronic publication of articles, as it now stands, leaves unmet, and perhaps contributes to, the need for current reviews that organize and contextualize original research.

"One of the journal's most unique features will be that its articles will be kept up to date by their authors."

The key to the information glut on line is to organize that wealth of available information in a way that lets us use it effectively. Right now researchers must contend with a print-publication system that is sometimes slow and expensive, the rich jumble of information in the Los Alamos Archive, an increasing number of journals on line, and more and more informal online resources such as mailing lists, colleagues' home pages, and home pages devoted to specific research projects. Living Reviews in Relativity will use the Web to complement and add value to those information sources.

After about a year of planning and author recruitment, we are now in the process of preparing the first issue of Living Reviews in Relativity. Due to an overwhelmingly positive response from the field, we expect our initial issue to contain about 25 articles. Publication is set for early 1998.

The basic idea behind the journal is to provide solely Web-based, refereed articles that review important research in all areas of relativity. Articles will analyze and describe the original research, key literature, and online resources most important to understanding current relativity research. One of the journal's unique features will be that its articles will be kept up to date by their authors; this is why the journal is "living." The goal of Living Reviews is to create an integrated, quality set of hypertext documents that form a valuable and up-to-date research tool for the relativity community.

Defining Ourself

In developing Living Reviews in Relativity we chose to build on the basic idea of an academic journal (peer review, oversight of editorial content by a qualified board, etc.) because the journal has been the most effective way for scholars to share their ideas with colleagues. Journals and journal articles are the means of communication that researchers — our pool of authors — understand and respect. Even the vast electronic archives growing at Los Alamos are based on the idea of preprints, papers primarily written for journal publication.

We choose to publish on the Web because of the opportunities it offers to publish material more expediently, to reach an international audience, and to hyperlink diverse information sources. However, the Web as a publication medium is also vastly uncharted territory. Thus that decision left us with much to define about our identity, contents, processing, editorial practices, and technical needs.

We did not want Living Reviews to replicate existing publishing efforts. Logistically, putting together an electronic publication that would directly compete with already well-established print journals (even those using the Web) made little sense. Those journals provide a valuable service and meet a need by publishing original research and by effectively using the Web to deliver their articles in formats meant to be printed out.

We did not want to compete with existing electronic resources such as the Los Alamos Preprint Archive. That archive is well organized and efficient, and provides a valuable and much-used resource to the relativity community. We wanted to create something that would add to the value of the Los Alamos Preprint Archive.

More important than avoiding competition with established journals and existing online resources was that we wanted to provide something that would be a new service to the relativity community, one that would build on, and integrate, rather than replicate, the system of print and electronic resources already available to physics researchers. By providing refereed and carefully edited review articles, we could create a forum in which contemporary research and information sources are set in an evaluative context. The value of a review article, particularly a current one, as evaluation and organization of print information sources is obvious. And because of the ease with which one can use hypertext in an electronic text, we could link our articles to appropriate resources on the Web.

With those potentials in mind, we began to see that more than an electronic publication, we could create an information system, a research tool that could be used by physicists to pursue their scholarship. We began to think of having users, not just readers, and that vocabulary introduced a new enthusiasm and awareness into our conversation. We began to see new possibilities for the presentation of research information.

We grew aware of a need for a constantly updated information system that would provide relativity researchers with an overview and assessment of the field. An electronic journal would provide the opportunity to develop such a system because electronic articles can be "living," that is, they can be updated easily. With the hypertext linking possibilities, we have a new and wide range of opportunities to process, organize, and present information in useful formats.

A Vision

Particularly because the electronic journal is a new form of scholarly publication, we needed a vision to help us plan for the publication, to recruit authors and assist them in article conception, and to explain Living Reviews to potential journal users. Our "Concept Document" incorporated that vision:

Overall Concept

Living Reviews in Relativity is an exclusively WWW-based, peer-reviewed journal, publishing reviews of research in all areas of relativity. Articles are solicited from leading authorities and are intended for physicists at or above the graduate-student level. The articles in Living Reviews provide up-to-date critical reviews of the state of research in the fields they cover. Articles also offer annotated insights (and where possible, active links) into the key literature and online resources of these fields . . . The goal of the journal is to develop its articles into a carefully screened and edited, well-integrated, topical set of hypertext documents which, taken together, form a valuable research tool for the relativity community.

"Deep and complex arguments, detailed proofs of theorems, and long mathematical derivations are probably better communicated on paper."

. . . It is neither a first-publication journal (of which there are now many good electronic versions) nor a collection of electronic monographs or textbooks (which are also beginning to appear on the Web). Instead, articles are placed at the level of a good plenary review talk at an international conference. Written by experts in relativity, reviews published in the journal cite, explain, and assess the most relevant, interesting, and important print and electronic resources in a field. The articles evaluate existing work, place it in a meaningful context, and suggest areas where more work and new results are needed. In this manner, Living Reviews aims to provide the international relativity community with a valuable and unique service.

Philosophy of the Electronic Design of Living Reviews: Users, Utility, and Updatability

We expect Living Reviews to be used rather than just read. A user working with electronic documents needs information to be presented in a way that is easy to assimilate from a computer screen. Most users access Living Reviews from their working environment, with all its interruptions and distractions. They often suspend their own reading of an article to follow up a link to an online resource, to another section of the article, to a reference, or to an index. These jumps may lead to further links. Such a style of use puts certain requirements on the journal's presentation and content. Deep and complex arguments, detailed proofs of theorems, and long mathematical derivations are probably better communicated on paper. Living Reviews is therefore not a textbook or a monograph. Rather, it offers surveys of recent work, evaluations of the importance and interconnections of results, summaries of important results, entry points into the essential literature, assessments of where new progress is needed, access to Web sites and other useful electronic contacts, and databases of the recent literature.

Because Living Reviews offers immediate online access to all its articles and to any online materials cited in those articles, the journal recognizes that it is essential that all articles and all links stay current. Living Reviews will stay current in the following ways. First, and most importantly, authors will revise articles as important new research developments occur. Users can therefore be confident of finding the latest important work in Living Reviews. Second, all electronic links made in articles and in the journal at large to online resources will be actively maintained. Through automatic programs, links will be checked frequently and updated as needed. Third, Living Reviews is always evolving; we are always looking for ways to increase the journal's utility. These ways of keeping current explain the meaning of the word "living" in the journal's title.

Editorial Policies and Journal Content

Our editors solicit articles from leading experts, with a view to achieving uniform coverage of modern relativity research. The coverage and depth of an article should be at a level similar to that found in a plenary review talk at a major conference. That is, an author specializing in a given area of relativity will inform scientists from other areas about the latest significant research in his or her area of specialization. Although articles may explain difficult concepts and provide an overall framework for understanding work in a field, they will not be primarily tutorial in nature. That is, rather than methodically covering every aspect of a given research area, an article published in Living Reviews will highlight significant issues affecting the field, provide thoughtful and evaluative commentary on the essential techniques and concepts being used in current research, and offer insight into the challenges facing future research efforts. Through their commentary, and — where appropriate — through offering direct annotation, articles will also guide users to the most useful, reliable, and interesting references.

Bringing Life to Articles

Articles in Living Reviews will be revised as new research developments occur. Revised articles will be treated editorially as new ones, with full referee scrutiny. Revised articles will be substituted for their older versions; updates will appear in the journal as soon as they are accepted. For archival purposes, the older documents will be kept accessible in a place referred to in their revisions and in journal navigation pages. We expect article revisions to take place every six months to two years, depending on the particular field involved. The move to revise an article can be initiated by authors or by our Editorial Board.

"Revised reviews can rightfully be listed as new publications."

Responses From the Field

Living Reviews in Relativity is in some senses a very simple, and in other senses a very ambitious, undertaking. We had, and still have, concerns about the feasibility of our efforts, particularly regarding finding authors willing to be actively involved in the journal on a longterm basis as maintainers of their articles.

With our inaugural issue set for early 1998, we can report on the success of our efforts to date. And it is success that we can thus far report. In May 1997 we began recruiting authors selected for their reputations as experts in their areas of specialization. Our initial contact information included a letter of invitation to write an article on a particular topic, a precis of our "Concept Document," a brief statement of purpose for Living Reviews in Relativity, and the user ID and password necessary to view a sample article we had prepared. We sent out fifty-four invitations. As of this writing (August 1997), we have twenty-eight articles promised for the first edition. The response and support from our invited authors has been overwhelmingly positive. Even those who declined our invitation were enthusiastic about the idea. (Most of those who turned us down had other obligations.)

The positive responses were in several categories. Some authors see Living Reviews as innovative, with the potential to provide an exciting and extremely useful research tool. Those people want to help us construct that tool. Other authors are responding to our goal to create a journal that complements, and thus doesn't compete with, existing resources. Many authors were pleased that we will make Living Reviews widely and freely available, without high subscription charges and no page charges for authors. We have been helped by the success of the Los Alamos Preprint Archive, because many of our authors, frustrated with the current scientific print-publication system, believe we have a chance with a new electronically based system.

Authors who agree to write for us are making a longterm commitment. They must keep their articles up to date. Yet our authors not only agreed to write articles for our first issue, they made the larger commitment. That positive response and support for a new type of journal shows that authors want to develop electronic publishing as a way to complement and improve on certain aspects of the traditional print publishing system.

Some of the things we are doing with Living Reviews that we think are helping us get articles and support from experts in the field include:

  • Logistics: Our authors understand we will keep the process of article updating as simple as possible.

  • Acknowledgement of ongoing work: Updated articles will be given full referee scrutiny, and therefore revised reviews can rightfully be listed as new publications.

  • Efficiency: For Living Reviews authors, maintaining an article will complement other professional responsibilities. With regard to depth and breadth of coverage, our articles will be very much like plenary talks at major conferences. We have recruited well-known experts in the field of relativity — the people most often invited to offer overviews of research in their area of specialization. Given this ongoing responsibility, our authors will always be working on their articles. In return, authors have our permission to use their Living Reviews pieces as bases for plenary talks. That provides good motivation for authors to keep interacting with the pieces they've developed for us.

As we engage in the experiment of launching and of further developing the journal, we will be keeping careful track of our efforts, experiences, and results. We welcome and look forward to ongoing dialogue with the readers of the Journal of Electronic Publishing about this new and developing medium. We encourage those interested in our efforts to contact us.

Jennifer Wheary, jwheary@aei-potsdam.mpg.de, Managing Editor of Living Reviews, holds Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. At Cornell University, she helped to develop adult education programs and materials, working particularly with literacy and writing issues. While at the University of Illinois, she examined the World Wide Web's potential impacts on the academic world and helped to develop the Web offerings of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

Bernard Schutz, schutz@aei-potsdam.mpg.de, Editor-in-Chief of Living Reviews, holds a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology. From 1974-1996 he was a lecturer and then a professor in physics and astronomy at the University of Wales Cardiff. He is now a director of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute) in Potsdam, Germany. His area of research specialization is relativistic astrophysics.


* For a discussion of the history and achievements of the Los Alamos Preprint Archives, and their implications for academic print and electronic publishing, see P. Ginsparg, "Winners and Losers in the Global Research Village," Invited contribution for conference held at UNESCO headquarters, Paris, 19-23 Feb 1996. Available from http://xxx.lanl.gov/blurb/pg96u nesco.html, 8 July 1997.return to text

** The authors substituted the paragraphs marked with double asterisks for the paragraphs below. Their note explains their reasons.

We'd like to change some of the original paragraphs offered in our JEP article because we now realize there is a little more to the Los Alamos story than we had in the orginal article. In retrospect, we see that as we were writing, we didn't comment on enough of the picture here. In some senses, perhaps we weren't aware of how things fully fit together. Conversations we've had with a few people who've read the article in JEP helped us see more connections and better define what is essential for us to say in these paragraphs. —JW & BFS, October, 1997

The original paragraphs are:

However, the Los Alamos Archive has the drawback of being unfiltered. Submitted papers are not edited and are not peer reviewed, which means there is no formal mechanism to check for accuracy of information, no way to ensure clarity of language, etc. Of course, users particularly informed about a topic have a sense of whose work they respect, and therefore have internal filters to judge the quality of a preprint. However, for someone unfamiliar with the science it is difficult to sort through the wide variety of papers on a topic.

Also, the majority of papers submitted to the Los Alamos Archive are reports of original research. That means relativity researchers (and others, of course) do not get timely and inexpensive access to review articles that evaluate those results. Perversely, the plethora of unfiltered information provided via the Los Alamos Archive intensifies the need for current review articles.return to textreturn to text