22.-24.3.2001, CERN, Switzerland.

Last change: 20 March 2001; Started: 16 March 2001;

Scientific Refereeing in a Distributed World

Eberhard R. Hilf (Institute for Science Networking, Oldenburg, Germany)
Hans-Joachim Wätjen, Library and Information System,
Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg, 26111 Oldenburg, Germany

key words: Peer reviewing, refereeing, annotations, scientific articles, documents, distributed services


Requirements for screening prime scientific documents in the digital age are discussed:
Separation of publish first on the web (posting), refereeing then allows careful refereeing, taking its time without hindering the distribution of new research results. It possiblyallows multiple and/or parallel refereeing.

The requirements for its organization call for professional search engines, international standard metadata usage, a long term stable archiving and an integration into document networks.

A realization scheme is presented. By use of the new Open Archives Initiative framework the library of each research institution or University serves for its local authors as a local online repository of their prime scientific documents. The library organizes the new postpublishing refereeing process. The signed incoming reports are stored, posted and linked to the document.
Refereeing is voluntary. The level of strength of the quality filter is defined by who is asking for refereeing:
the local research group head, scientists of the same field of neighbour universities, experts as named by the corresponding national learned society.


In the age of the paper world the way of a prime scientific document is still long and expensive:
the author sends the document to a publisher intended to be published in a scientific journal, the publisher organizes refereeing, sends the anonymized reports to the author together with recommendations for improving the paper, waits for incoming revisions, checks spelling, adds layout, sends it to print, distributes it to the worldwide distributed scientific libraries (if they can afford that journal).
Finally the reader may find it in his local institution's library.

To save the publisher from economic risks one requirement was that the author should send the document only to one publisher at a time.The disadvantage was that in case the paper was turned down, the author had no public record of a time stamp for his paper stating at what time he did the original piece of work . Also, safe and professional archiving then has not been offered.
The progress of science has been more and more seriously hindered in the past

The referee's reports are forwarded to the author anonymously, thus allowing friendly advice of how to improve the style, correct the formulae, shorten or add material, etc. This made sense as long as it was tradition not to publish the paper before, apart from a few colleagues informed by a mail copy.

In the digital age documents are sent to one of the eprint archives, most prominently the arXiv, which immediately make them worldwide public. Any friendly secret advice by an anonymous referee to the author will not save him from looking like a fool already worldwide. The eprint archives are publishing the documents, offering time stamps, safe and long term archiving, and worldwide posting via the Web. Publishing is thus not any longer after refereeing but before it. This enables to separate these two processes, whereas in the former times the publishing depended on the positive refereeing. The separation now allows to reshape and professionalize both services in the new age with the aim of making scientific research and the provision of information more efficient and cost-effective.

Figure 1: Present document work flow and refereeing scheme

Requirements of refereeing and the digital age

Distributed Document Data Bases

The present development in publishing documents goes to distributed document archives as the only way to deal with the problem of scaling larger numbers of documents.

In 1995 PhysNet and in 1995/96 Math-Net were launched as the first discipline-specific distributed document services for Physics and, respectively, Mathematics. Their search engines harvest the worldwide distributed webservers of research institutions and university departments to offer a full bunch of services: link lists, documents, teaching material, etc. Both services were adopted in 2000 by the respective international societies: EPS (European Physical Society), and IMU (International Mathematical Union). More recently, in 2000, MareNet, a similar service was launched, for Marine Sciences.

Figure 2: PhysDoc home page

While referring to distributed databases makes the formerly necessary huge central computer-centers superfluous, such as the most famous arXiv, it leads to a new problem: finding and retrieving a document in this world of heterogenous and distributed document data bases.

Metadata for retrieval

This issue of professional retrieval has been addressed most successfully by the DublinCore initiative, with its biannual conferences. Metadata to tag key information of a document have been internationally agreed on. These machine-readable metadata attached to a document allows search engines to find and retrieve the document in the infinite large ocean of documents posted on the web by better indexing with metadata.

At present PhysNet gathers from about 3.000 Physics institutions, PhysDoc leads to about 39.000 documents and document lists, of which 988 give metadata. Usage is about 30.000 requests per month. However a webform MMM (MyMetadataMaker) is offered to be used by the authors to enrich their documents by metadata. MMM has been cooperatively developed by the joint technical subcommittee of PhysNet and Math-Net.

All these services XxxNet are serving a clientel of a specific learned discipline. Other services in other disciplines use quite different strategies and service types. Thus the interdisciplinary coherent integration of all services to search efficiently and interdisciplinary seems to be an unsurmountable task.

Open Archives Initiative

The new international Open Archives Initiative (OAi), launched in 2000, was a real breakthrough, its pragmatic and simple approach was both international and interdisciplinary.

OAi comes in three layers:

Due to the discussion at Lisbon a DC-conformal minimal metadata definition set was worked out, and a one year moratorium for changes was agreed on which allowed the development of wrapper tools to make individual local data bases OAi compliant, and to set up OAi-able search engines which harvest the metadata from the OAi-compliant document data bases.

Since PhysNet is not just one document data base but a multitude of some 3.000, we need to adapt a specific wrapper. This was developed by H. Stamerjohanns with some software by UKOLN ( and by Dobratz and Mueller ( Humboldt University at Berlin). PhysNet was registered as an OAi-compliant database in March 2001. The second step, to design a wrapper to allow PhysNet to access other OAi-compliant document data bases is under way.

At present we work together with Virginia Tech (USA) in a joint project called OAD, Open Archives: Distributed services for Physicists and graduate students to couple the distributed archives on both sides, namely PhysNet, PhysDiss, and
NDLDT of Virginia Tech. This project is financed under a new scheme jointly by the National Science Foundation of USA and Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft DFG of Germany.


In the concept of OAi no central document database is needed for publishing any more.
The subsequent steps of quality filters and peer refereeing can now be designed optimally with no strain of time pressure.
They follow subsequently from the distributed concept.

The first science quality filter is the author himself. By checking his home page one may get an idea of his expertise.
The online readability of the document relies on the keen interest of the author to be read and expertised . His knowledge in adding metadata is most often minimal, but the online webform supports him with this service. The archiving is done immediately.

The second step is set by the filters imposed by the institute/department on the internal document work flow until publication on the institute's webserver. We call them document masters (in analogy to webmasters).
These filters may draw from the expertise of the research group's head, of the institute's internal refereeing committee. The techniques of transfer to an optimal browsing format should normally be at hand for the webmaster of the institute. The archiving is normally not in the prime focus of research institutions and relies on the existence of the research group, institute or even department. At our place about every year the list of work groups of the department changes, and next year we will see a reorganization of departments at our University.

The third step of the document on its way to permanent archiving is its transfer to the university's library. The university library offers its advantages since it is a stable part of the university with its staff for handling documents. It may organize a refereeing by fitting experts from neighbouring Universities. The Library archives the original file of the document and convert it to most suitable browsing formats presently at use. It also integrates the document into the worldwide networked library information and retrieval systems, adds the correct metadata according to the present international standards, and gives a copy of the document to the Library for long term archiving.

The final step is the refereeing of the document by international experts, which the national (or in the case of the European Physical Society international) societies take care of.

Thus the university libraries will play the key role in organizing the workflow of online-documents from the author via posting on webservers to its refereeing steps and to final archiving. This is fostered by professionalizing the work distribution at a university: let the scientists do their research and refereeing, while the university libraries provide the organization and the technical services.

Realization Scheme at Universities

At present in Germany there are several activities to set up the concept of realization, to find ways to realize and to fnance it aiming at a long time stable, effective, professional, and affordable structure. In the south of Germany many libraries use for their document servers the OPUS system which was developed by the university library Stuttgart and which offers also a simultaneous search in different OPUS databases (OPUS-Metasuche). Similar activities we can find at many other university libraries in Germany.

E. g. our university library in Oldenburg has set up a document workflow system named COPACABANA (Computer Aided Publishing, Administrating, Bibliographic and Networked Access). This system supports first of all the authors at the local science departments and its research groups in formatting and submitting the documents and their metadata, secondly the university press which is part of the library and which publishes in both channels (on paper and online) and thirdly the library itself in the management of their document server and in integrating the metadata into their catalogue database.

There is also cooperation between the universities and their libraries to establish alternative structures in scholarly publishing. The universities of North Germany, namely Hamburg, Oldenburg, Bremen, Kiel, Greifswald, and Rostock with their about 150.000 students are planning a joint university press and distributed archives however with a joint scheme of crosswise refereeing. Hamburg and Oldenburg will start and possibly a university library in North-Rhine-Westfalia will join this project consortia.

For the special document class of theses and dissertations the workflow all the way from getting the file from the author/department, adding metadata by the author/department, controlling and checking by the library experts, posting to the library's webserver, to the final archiving at "Die Deutsche Bibliothek" has been set up nation-wide and agreed on.

A national initiative, DINI Deutsche Initiative für Netzwerkinformation has been founded. It comprises the institutions of the information infrastructure at universities, which are the University libraries of the German Library Association (dbv), the Computer Centers (ZKI), and the Multimedia centers at Universities (AMH) together with the initiative of the scientific societies in Germany, the IuK.

Workgroups have been set up on Metadata, e-journals, usage of Multimedia. An annual national conference is held and last year DINI has declared to support the OAi. As a concrete contribution DINI will offer workshops within the next months to support the administrators of existing document servers in implementing the OAi specifications in order to become OAi compliant data providers.

Setting up this scheme, which means first of all publishing , secondly crossrefereeing, and thirdly archiving all scientific documents, is possible by applying the OAi concept. But the radical change will only happen if it is accepted by all players, the scientists, departments, libraries, state and national government. The publishers off course may not easily comply with this scenario. But they still have a role by adding value and/or by still printing journals of wider interest which we can read at the beach even in the digital age.


A fruitful collaboration is acknowledged with Th. Severiens (PhysNet), M.Hohlfeld (MareNet), H. Stamerjohanns (OAD).

References and further links

  1. T. Severiens, M. Hohlfeld, K. Zimmermann, E. R. Hilf: PhysDoc - A Distributed Network of Physics Institutions Documents -
    Collecting, Indexing, and Searching High Quality Documents by using Harvest
    D-Lib Magazine, Vol. 6 No. 12, December 2000 [ISSN: 1082-9873] [DOI: 10.1045/december2000-severiens]
  2. ISN publication list

Copyright Statement

This document may be freely downloaded, transferred to other viewing or archival formats, copied, distributed, archived, printed and even read by anyone provided that he/she is keeping the text absolutely unchanged and intact, and cites the original source correctly as
E.R.Hilf and H.-J. Waetjen,
Scientific Refereeing in a Distributed World;
CERN meeting on OAi and Peer review journals in Europe