Acceptance for publication in a journal implies that the work appears to be consistent and plausible enough to merit the attention of the relevant community of scientists and a topic for further discussion and investigation; it is neither clearly wrong nor outlandishly foolish, and may well be right. Reviewers, realistically, can devote only very limited effort to each manuscript they receive, so they screen the papers using a relatively low standard for acceptance: no obvious errors and relevance and interest for the audience of the journal.
Scientists also communicate data, sometimes just as single facts or numbers, sometimes as extensive sets of tabulated results from experiment or theory. At one extreme are the new values of some freshly measured quantity; at the other are the carefully constructed tables of critically evaluated data such as those published in the Journal of Physical and Chemical Reference Data. An illustration of this latter category is the data sets maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which are most easily obtained on its Web page.2 There one can find the best current values of many quantities, for example those of the fundamental standards such as the speed of light, the masses of elementary particles, and Avogadro’s number. But there are also vast sets of data available in other open databases. One that overlaps the physical and biological sciences is the Protein Data Bank,3 a rich and fast-growing source of information about the sequences and structures that have been established and to some extent the level of uncertainty of the data. We should not lose sight, however, of the importance of one scientist relating to another the frequency of some critical, newly measured spectral line, or the strength of the bond between a protein molecule and an inhibitor molecule that sticks to the protein.
In this context it is useful to distinguish simple data repositories from data in critically evaluated databases. The latter in the United States are considered worthy of copyright; hence they have value the law considers worth protecting. Unevaluated data deposited as they are generated may be useful but dangerous to use indiscriminately. For example, most scientists familiar with the sequences in the human genome database believe that there are many errors in those data and that considerable caution should be exercised by anyone trying to use those data. One might go so far as to say that unevaluated data deposited in an indiscriminate repository should be given no legal protection at all, until they have been scrutinized critically.
Traditional journal publication and the almost-as-traditional preprint circulation have been the most important archival modes of communication. Apart from these, presentations at conferences provide another important mode of communicating scientific information. These presentations range from talks at very large meetings of professional societies to smaller, more focused meetings, such as Gordon Conferences, to the very small working groups that have met, for example, at the Aspen Center for Physics and the Telluride Summer Research Center. While these have been very important vehicles of communication, they rarely have had archival functions. In fact, Gordon Conference rules prohibit any record of the discussions or even the formal presentations; even quoting a presentation requires the permission of the person being quoted. Conference proceedings have in many instances been published, but unless the vehicle for publication is a standard journal and the issues containing the conference proceedings are circulated as normal issues, the proceedings become almost invisible to scientists later. There has certainly been disillusionment among researchers about publishing work in conference proceedings. On the other hand, the information exchanged among participants, especially in the smaller meetings, plays a very seminal role in moving science ahead.
The most obvious changes of the past 20 years have been the increase in electronic modes of archiving, communicating, and accessing scientific information. There has probably been an increase in the frequency of small, specialized conferences and workshops as well. Electronic communication has its most known manifestations in electronic versions of journals and in less conventional electronic forms of communicating—publishing—completed work. Martin Blume distinguishes “Publishing” from “publishing”; the former implies appearance in a conventional journal, with reviewing and editing included in the process of “Publishing,” while “publishing” includes both that mode and also posting on an electronic server such as the arXiv4 that imposes no reviewing or editing and simply accepts what a scientist submits.