An international group of science bodies, librarians and publishing associations has attempted to come up with a definition of a science publication in the electronic era.
The group says that the problem needs addressing to help resolve uncertainty about the status, role and function of electronic publication in science.
United Kingdom representatives on the working group included Sally Morris of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers and Sir Roger Elliott, co-chair of the International Council of Science.
The group proposes that to qualify as a "publication" a document should, at the minimum, conform to a number of characteristics: it must be "fixed", ie, recorded durably on some medium; it should be publicly available, though not necessarily free; it must also be "persistent", ie, remaining in the same form and in the same location so it can be accessed easily and over time.
Other characteristics include means of certifying its authenticity and a bibliographic record that describes the work and its various versions. For "definitive publications" documents must be vetted to ensure quality and to establish a high level of trust among readers, as with conventional peer-reviewed articles.
The group is also concerned about the treatment of versions of articles on the internet. Computer technology allows articles to be repeatedly revised and updated. Authors can then correct errors and "upgrade" their works, but it raises the problem of deciding when a paper is first "published".
The group rejects the notion that posting a paper onto a personal web page constitutes publication. Further steps that must be taken include fixing the document in one location, informing peers of its presence on the net and making a commitment not to delete it.
Toby Bainton, of the Standing Conference of National and University Libraries, said the group's efforts were "a good step forward but there are plenty of ambiguities in what it has to say".
He said it would be difficult to dismiss as non-publications works that have been posted on a personal web page. He said: "Posting on a web page is actually publication, as is, for example, printing 100 copies of a paper and putting them on sale in a town in Chechnya."