The Memex by p373 via Flickr

Scientific publishing was too slow, too expensive, and wasted too many resources.  There was too much published and not enough time to read.  It was 1976, the year the leisure suit, and the solution to the print journal was the On-line Scientific Journal, a prophetic vision of John W. Senders, a professor at the University of Toronto.

Using “teletype machines” — networked computer terminals that would be available at every university — the entire authoring, submission, reviewing, editing, and publishing process would take place online, thus saving valuable time in the movement of physical manuscripts.

Senders understood that moving the entire publishing system online was going to take time, and lots and lots of money.  Yet he justified the expense with the notion that the new system would start becoming cheaper than print in 25 years [1].  Perhaps realizing that few would invest in a system that paid off in generation, he quickly revised his estimate for payback to only 10-15 years [2].

The vision of scientists working in isolation at their futuristic desk consoles (like the Memex described by Vannevar Bush over 20 years earlier [3]), was ultimately the most accurate prediction by Senders, but it wasn’t a future everyone wished to greet.

Many people have expressed fears that electronic offices will generate a generation of scientists who will sit at desks connected to remote machines and engage in intercourse with these machines to the exclusion of human interaction. [1]

John Senders was involved in the first experimental on-line journal.  After the project was concluded, Senders reflected, “I have seen the future, and it doesn’t work.” This comment became the title of a speech he gave in 1980 at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Scholarly Publishing in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  If anyone remembers this talk, please submit your recollections.

John Senders is still with us, listed as Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto.  In 2008, he was awarded the Knowledge Media Design Institute Pioneer Award for outstanding contribution to the field of electronic publishing.

[1] Senders, J. 1976. The Scientific Journal of the Future. American Sociologist 11: 160-164.

[2] Senders, J. 1977. An On-line Scientific Journal. Information Scientist 11: 3-9.

[3] Bush, V. 1945. As we may think. Atlantic Monthly July.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


1 Thought on "Back to the Future: The On-line Scientific Journal"

I am indeed “still with us.” My most recent appointment is that of James Marsh ‘Professor at Large’ at the University of Vermont. I am also Adjunct Professwsor of Law at York University in Toronto. Philips’ assertion that “Perhaps realizing that few would invest in a system that paid off in generation, he quickly revised his estimate for payback to only 10-15 years [2]” is totally unfounded nonsense! The revision was the result of further, and more sensitive analysis.

In re the talk :“I have seen the future and it doesn’t work” I remember it very well. If anyone wants the text I shall be glad to send it along.

John W Senders

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