The scientific paper—the actual form of it—was one of the enabling inventions of modernity. Before it was developed in the 1600s, results were communicated privately in letters, ephemerally in lectures, or all at once in books. There was no public forum for incremental advances. By making room for reports of single experiments or minor technical advances, journals made the chaos of science accretive.
The earliest papers were in some ways more readable than papers are today. Papers today are longer than ever and full of jargon and symbols. They depend on computer programs that contribute to a failure of the paper to perform its most basic task: to report what you've actually discovered, clearly enough that someone else can discover it for themselves.
Perhaps the paper itself is to blame. Scientific results today are as often as not found with the help of computers. And yet by far the most popular tool we have for communicating these results is the PDF—literally a simulation of a piece of paper. Maybe we can do better.
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