the age of impermanence



Victor M. Ponce



"I have written my share of journal papers," proclaimed a colleague who had risen to the administrative ranks of academia in the late 1970s. Being an assistant professor at the time, I realized that I hadn't yet. Thus, over the next three decades, I engaged in academic publishing, ever mindful of the dictum "Publish or perish." My first journal paper was published in 1977, and my last in the year 2003. 1, 2

In those days, publishing in a scientific or professional journal was not for the faint of heart. First, it took a while, usually between one to two years, for the manuscript to navigate its way through the review process. Peer review was necessary to make sure that the work was relevant, accurate, and duly supported. The enduring objective of the system was to identify mistakes, if any, prior to publication. Errors in published work could not only be misleading, but they could also throw into question the author's professional reputation. Furthermore, it would be impossible to retrieve or correct any errors after the customary six-month discussion-and-closure period. The system seemed to work well for nearly a century, until technology managed to throw a monkey wrench into the process.

the age of impermanence


Enter the internet, c. 1994. The internet continues to revolutionize society and business. With the omnipresent internet, publication online has become commonplace. No longer is it strictly necessary for a prospective author to submit him/herself to the conventionally rigorous process of peer review in order to publish. In the past few years, self-publication has become the de-facto standard, as anybody that uses the web can attest to.
the age of impermanence

The ubiquitous presence of Wikipedia is the premier example of self-publication. Unlike traditional journals, online publication by individuals is less structured, follows no definite pattern, and sticks to few rules. Gone are the days when you had to wait one or two years for your article to see the light of day, if you were good, lucky and determined enough to successfully sail through the review process. Online peer review is either minimal or nonexistent, and this is seen by some as a liability in the conventional frame of things. However, speed, expediency, and individual empowerment are at their peak.


At the outset, we recognize that online self-publication may be a double-edged sword. The material may not have been adequately peer-reviewed; therefore, its quality is not guaranteed. Yet, online self-publication has an inherent, very powerful advantage which was not existent in the old system. Unlike traditional journal publications, which are permanent and subject to archive, the online self-publication is impermanent, not readily amenable to conventional archiving. On the surface, this appears to be a liability, and it will prompt some people to dismiss the power of online publishing as transient. However, a thoughful examination of the issues points elsewhere.

The very impermanence of online publishing is an asset, rather than a liability. With online self-publishing, one does not have to be extremely careful, within reason, or spend a lot of time checking the material through peer review or other means, because one can correct the material on-the-fly, when alerted by others to errors or omissions, and human nature will ensure that this always happens. Thus, online documents are bound to improve with time, as a good wine would do.

Correction is something one could not do with the old system. Hitherto, once the material saw the light of day in print, it could not be fixed. Right or wrong, it would remain forever in the archives of human knowledge. It is not difficult to realize that many an author who erred saw him/herself defending the error or choosing to forget that it ever existed, in the belief that the alternative, a public acknowledgement and subsequent embarrasment, could end up killing the patient.

the age of impermanence


The new online publication experience does away with the problem of the permanence of errors and omissions. From now on, things can be fixed and, thus, online publications are poised to take on a life of their own. Technically, they are never finished; they can always be improved, complemented, or seen in an ever evolving perspective. Thus, they are truly dynamic, some may say "alive," a characteristic that could not be ascribed to the old print journals archived in the conventional libraries.

the age of impermanence

To those that may interpret our remarks as an advocacy for change, it is necessary to remind them that we have only stated current trends. As the immortal Machiavelli put it: "In human affairs, one always finds that, bound with what is good, there is some bad, and it would seem impossible to have one without the other." 3

1 Ponce, V. M., and D. B. Simons. (1977). Shallow wave propagation in open-channel flow. Journal of the Hydraulics Division, American Society of Civil Engineers, Vol. 103, No. HY2, December.
2 Ponce, V. M., A. T. Shamsi, and A. V. Shetty. (2003). Dam-breach flood wave propagation using dimensionless parameters. Journal of Hydraulic Engineering, American Society of Civil Engineers, Vol. 129, No. 10, October.
3 Machiavelli, N. (1970). The Discourses: Book III, Discourse 37. Penguin Books (First released in the Italian original in 1531).
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