Globe and Mail article From the Toronto Globe and Mail

Mind & Matter

A 12-month electronic gestation leads to an old-fashioned paper birth.

Now there must be some of you who are interested in scientific research that doesn't quite consider itself mainstream. Perhaps it is your special pleasure to read about "the azoreductase activity of bacteria associated with the greening of instant chocolate pudding" or "the effect of peanut butter on the rotation of the earth."

If this is your bent you were probably a regular reader of the Journal of Irreproducible Results (JIR), which billed itself as "the oldest satirical journal of science." But what you are probably not aware of is JIR's recent electronic reincarnation and what that says about the future of publishing.

First a little history. Started in 1955 by Israeli virologist Alexander Kohn, JIR included accounts of silliness published in mainstream scientific journals along with original flights of fancy by its reader-contributors. In its pages you might encounter "A Stress Analysis of a Topless Evening Gown, "A New Approach to Dividing by Zero" and "A Structural Analysis of Liverwurst." In one memorable article, three members of a Massachusetts family experimented with chocolate cake and were able to scientifically demonstrate that "cakus chocolatus" produced a pleasurable feeling when eaten but no discernible emotion when spread on skin.

Then there was the analysis of frequency of compass-point names -- north, east, west and south -- in Canadian phone books. Another bit of original research discovered that "a bar of green soap purporting to smell of spring in Ireland may strike the noses of 5 per cent of the population as more closely resembling dirty socks." There was a "Briefer History of Time in which everything Stephen Hawking had to say was distilled into one word: "Bang."

And my favourite: the scientific proof that 99 percent of the things in our daily life fall into the jamais vu category -- that is, we don't remember them ever happening before.

Alas, in 1989 the magazine was taken over by Blackwell Scientific Publications Inc., a British scientific publishing house whose titles run along the lines of "Ecophysiology of Fungi," "Practical Meat Inspection" and "Complications of Laparoscopy and Hysterectomy."

What ensued might be described as a culture clash between the sillies and the stern-faces. According to Marc Abrahams, who was then JIR editor, the folks from Blackwell didn't know what to make of a publication whose renewal slips featured a copy of the magazine being pitched into a garbage can.

You will excuse me if I get a bit coy here, because I have been listening to only one side of a corporate marriage gone sour. And as both the married and the single among us know, there are more sides to a bad relationship than a convention of Rubik's Cubes.

What is undeniably true is that the entire JIR staff and its advisers -- including seven Nobel Prize laureates -- decided to start a new journal a lot like the old journal. Thus was born -- or, more accurately, thus is being born -- the Annals of Improbable Research.

The problem the new journal faced was essentially that of any young magazine. How do you let potential readers know you exist? How do you get people to subscribe? How do you locate potential advertisers?

Usually, a publisher creates a prototype, advertises it in other publications or buys the mailing lists of journals whose readers might also want to be readers of the new mag. But ultimately, it is-Field-of-Dreams Land: A publisher creates a product and hopes to hell the readership shows up.

But AIR had no money. And so it hit upon an unusual solution. It has gone through its gestation period by existing as an electronic equivalent of a prototype. Over the past 12 months it has produced a mini-version of itself, which has been given to anyone who requested it.

Today, its founders claim that, with 19,000 subscribers (the old JIR had about 10,000 subscribers), it is the largest electronic journal on the Internet. That has been accomplished with a budget that Mr. Abrahams describes as "less than a shoe-string."

"We have virtually no money," he says. He figures that a print version would have cost at least $140,000.

Having established its audience, AIR solicited subscribers over the Internet -- a subscription costs $40 (U.S.) in Canada. Housed in the library of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it now plans to produce a print version of itself in December. Among other topics, the December issue will include a "Taxonomy of Barney" -- he is physiologically more like a salmon than a dinosaur -- and the "Aerodynamics of the Potato Chip." It also has its first advertiser: a company that produces a poster showing animal penisis.

The new AIR will remain a hybrid. Most copies will be printed because subscribers say they want a paper product. But some letters to the editor, announcements, lists of silly scientific abstracts and responses to breaking scientific news will remain on the Internet.

The significance of a print birth after an electronic pregnancy is not totally apparent to me, except to say that any thing that works once is tried again. And anything that works twice is a trend.