Librarians and computer scientists worldwide have joined forces to propose the creation of a single "virtual archive" from which papers by any academic in any discipline can be accessed with ease on the web.
The initiative is being headed by Paul Ginsparg, founder of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Physics Archive, United States, which now houses more than 100,000 papers and is accessed by more than 50,000 users a day.
The initiative aims to create a single global system within which all academic archives can be navigated. Since the launch of the LANL archive in 1991, many other disciplines and institutions have begun to found public research archives along similar lines.
Stevan Harnad, professor of cognitive science at the University of Southampton, said that technical conventions that could be adopted to ensure all archives are "interoperable" had been lacking. The new initiative aims to address that problem.
An agreement to develop such interoperability was reached at a recent conference of academics, computer experts and librarian groups in Santa Fe. They also decided to have a shared tagging system for papers.
Professor Harnad said: "This promises to allow all public research archives, distributed all over the planet, to be integrated into a virtual archive so that it can be accessed for free any time, as if the world's literature were in one place."
The United Kingdom's libraries' interests were represented through the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, an international grouping of academic libraries, of which the UK's Standing Conference of National and University Libraries is a member.
SCONUL's Fred Friend, director of scholarly communication at University College London said: "This initiative will provide the framework for electronic prints from many academic sources to be brought together either instead of or in advance of traditional publication."
Professor Harnad, who attended the Santa Fe meeting, said all conference participants agreed that scientific and scholarly publishing was being "held hostage" and needed to be freed. "They all felt it needs to be released from the access barriers of the paper medium. Most wanted to free it from the access barriers of journal subscription prices and some wanted to free it from journal peer review."
Professor Harnad supports the first two aims but opposed ditching peer review as he fears this could undermine the academic respectability of electronic archiving ventures.
He said: "If a significant number of universities adopt the free software, the release of research literature in a global public archive could take place before the end of 2000. All they have to do is set it up locally and have their researchers archive all their papers in it. The day after this is done, the entire worldwide research literature will be there free for everyone, everywhere."