Why is this article published on the web?

This article is an experiment in a new method of scholarly publishing. Although websites are now used for all kinds of communication, the electronic publishing of academic papers still tends to mean a simple digitization of traditional linear texts.

My initial motivation for putting this paper on the web was to make the video footage of experiments available to many people, as only a small number of people could be invited to the lab to witness the experiments directly. In an ordinary paper-based journal or book it would obviously be impossible to incorporate the videos smoothly. However, soon I realized that there was much greater and unexplored potential in the electronic format.

The hyperlink format makes it much easier for readers to engage with the paper at the level of depth and detail they choose, and to zoom in on the aspects of the paper they are most interested in. The main page gives a brief overview of the whole topic, which is clear but sketchy, intriguing yet not fully explanatory. A reader with superficial curiosity can finish there, and come away with a general sense of what I want to convey after 10 minutes of reading. Others can dig deeper, by following through various links. Underneath the superficial exterior of this article lie a few layers of depth, detail and references to further sources, which readers can explore according to their own initiative. Actually traditional scholars and publishers long ago invented mechanism that I want: cross-references and footnotes. Hundreds of years later, the web format finally allows us to realize the full potential of these literary devices.

I have planned the structure and content of this article meticulously, in order to give readers more ease in following it in their own ways. A text is not fully meaningful until it is read. The reader inevitably shapes the experience of reading. The hyperlink format of this paper is an invitation to the reader to take an active and conscious role in choosing the way in which the text is read, and hence to contribute to the constitution of the paper itself. With a conventional book or article, only the most skilled readers can manage this kind of active shaping of the reading experience. Most other people simply give up after trying to read everything in the beginning parts.

This flexible and reader-driven format is very appropriate for the content of this paper, which might be of interest to a wide variety and level of readers. No journal can cater to all those people that I think would find this material interesting: experimental and theoretical scientists, engineers, historians and philosophers of science, science teachers, science students at all levels starting at least from secondary school, readers of popular science, and so on. The web format can be used to break down barriers. First of all, the fact that readers can choose the level at which to follow the article means that it can be shared and discussed by people at different levels; in some intriguing ways, this is like how adults and children can watch a show like The Simpsons and enjoy it all together, while getting different things out of it. Secondly, because readers can easily delve into some parts of the paper for detail and let the rest remain at a superficial level, specialists in many different subjects will be able to read and discuss it together; in the process, they might begin to see why each other's subject is interesting and how some cross-fertilization might be possible. Such integrating function is to some extent served within the sciences by general-subject periodicals such as Science or The Scientific American; however, even in such interdisciplinary settings it is relatively rare that one and the same article would be read by specialists in many disciplines.

Another barrier-breaking aspect of the format I present here is the possibility of easy communication between the author and the reader, given the spread of the dual tool of web-browsing and e-mail. We can melt away the sharp division between the ivory-tower scholar and the lay reader, one incomprehensible and the other ignorant. More direct communication between the reader and the author will encourage the kind of mutual learning that can take place in a good undergraduate course. Interaction with the readers ought to aid further developments in the paper, and the web format makes it easy to put in corrections and updates. (If you cite this paper, please be sure to note the date of last update, as you should do in any case when citing websites.)

The method of distribution I am using for this paper also reflects the ideals of open scholarly communication. I have decided not to put this paper through the normal peer-review mechanism, in which it is only judged by one or two mainstream scholars who are experts in the specific subject. Instead, I am taking peer-review in a broader sense, by bringing this paper to the attention of a number of different people whose views I respect. If they find the paper interesting and valuable, they are free to pass it on very easily to others, who can do the same in turn. Therefore the method of distribution I have chosen is the traditional word-of-mouth, assisted by e-mail and the internet. The readership is not restricted by subscription to specialist journals or membership in universities or professional societies. The article will be given a push in the initial distribution, but after that it will sink or swim on its own merits, in a quasi-Darwinian struggle for survival in which it will succeed only if it proves worthwhile to a sufficient number of people. I am sufficiently confident that this paper will reach many more people by this method of distribution than by publication in a specialist journal. Getting it into a more popular magazine would increase the readership, but on the one hand I would have to do away with the in-depth material, and still fail to reach the right combination of readers.

All this could, of course, get out of hand. It is one thing for one person to experiment with this format, but if everyone attempted the same thing, we would end up with a great deal of what would seem like academic junk mail. Already we have a profusion of everyone's nonsense on the internet, and only the most discerning surfer can pick out the high-quality material from the sea of information and misinformation. There must be some way to certify the quality of the material and direct its flow, without falling back into the narrowness and hierarchy inherent in the current print-publishing system.

I have not come up with definite solutions on how such quality-control can be achieved. However, I have an inspiring example in mind in the practice of certain scientific periodicals that sprang up in the years around 1800. My favourite example is A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, founded in 1797 by William Nicholson in London. Anyone could send in contributions to Nicholson's Journal, unlike the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, to which papers could be communicated only by fellows of the Royal Society. Nicholson himself was an amateur scientist, and he took in and published scientific papers from all sorts of people; Nicholson also published a number of letters from readers commenting on articles from previous issues. The historian of science S. Lilley, in his study of Nicholson's Journal, used the phrase "popular research" to describe this new kind of scientific activity which was reported and encouraged by Nicholson (Lilley 1948-50). Popular research flourished for a few decades into the 19th century, but slowly perished due to the increasing specialization of the sciences that made it increasingly difficult for the amateurs to keep up. We have now gone too far away from popular research, not only in the sciences but in all academic disciplines including even philosophy.

Looking back towards 1800: it would be a mistake to think there was a sharp dichotomy between a professional science practiced at places like the Royal Society and the ancient universities, and a popular or amateur science practiced by the likes of Nicholson and his readers. Many stars of the scientific world, such as Humphry Davy, published in Nicholson's Journal. The journal was later absorbed by its main competitor, The Philosophical Magazine, which slowly turned into one of the leading professional journals of physics in Victorian times. Nicholson himself made at least one major contribution to cutting-edge science, in collaboration with the physician Anthony Carlisle, which was the first decomposition of water using a battery (Voltaic pile). This stunning work was published in Nicholson's own Journal, and provided a great deal of stimulus for the initial development of electrochemistry, much of which was first reported, again, in Nicholson's Journal.

Through Nicholson's Journal, a virtual community of scholars formed that incorporated a wide variety of scientists ranging from the high-and-mighty to the humble experimenter in the kitchen. Nicholson as the responsible and savvy editor gave shape and direction to this community and maintained the quality of its output, while profiting sufficiently from this and other publishing ventures to make himself a living. There is no reason why some of today's scholars could not jump in to play a Nicholson-like role in the burgeoning electronic arena, rather than wringing their hands lamenting the impending demise of traditional publishing.

In normal practice, scholarly e-publishing seems to mean just sticking a linearly structured text document on the web in the same old static and non-interactive fashion. Yes, this kind of e-publishing may cut publisher's costs, save the readers from a trip to the library and a photocopier, and benefit those readers who do not have access to good libraries. But we can do much more than that. We are seriously under-utilizing the great potential of the electronic medium available to us now.

If you know me personally, you know that I do not jump at new technologies easily. But technology should be welcomed if it allows you to do what you've been wanting to do desperately. What I consider the ideal of scientific publishing took shape around the year 1800, and it has been almost completely lost now. The information technology of the early 21st century can let us recover that old method, and go much beyond it.

To sum up: what I seek to demonstrate by means of this article on the boiling point is a new method of scholarly publishing, which can exist in parallel with the traditional methods and also infiltrate them slowly. What I hope for is no less than a fundamental re-orientation in the nature of scholarship. By not publishing this paper in a peer-reviewed journal I am losing out a little bit in the mad accumulation of professional credit; however, if this experiment works out, there will be other rewards greater than adding one more paper to my list of publications in recognized outlets. If such rewards can be known and enjoyed by more professional scholars, they will be driven to produce more work that can affect the mental life of people outside their narrow professional circles, and perhaps produce a little less of those papers that are read by few, cited by fewer, understood by even fewer, and possibly not truly appreciated by anyone at all.

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