The next step, after electronic submission of manuscripts, is the electronic distribution of astronomical journals. In fact, the AAS has already started publishing volumes of its journals on CD-ROM, and the Astrophysical Journal Letters are currently available on-line. The ADS provides on-line scanned images of ApJ (Letters) from 1975. In Europe, the CDS provides on-line abstracts of volumes of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the P.A.S.P.
These initiatives indicate what the first electronic journals will look like: very much a linear continuation of the printed journal, but distributed with electronic means. The electronic journal allows the astronomer to browse hypertext versions of abstracts, and even full papers, on-line. When the astronomer has found the information he is looking for, (portions of) the paper may be retrieved, to produce a paper copy on a local printing device.
Traditionally, publishers are responsible for the production and distribution of printed journals, and libraries are responsible for their archiving, to thus ensure prompt and indefinite access. Initially these responsibilities will not change much, when publishers are to provide the on-line version of the current (annual) volume of a journal, and libraries to collect the CD-ROMs of completed annual volumes.
However, it is quite likely that todays electronic journals will evolve into electronic `information systems', taking much more advantage of the capabilities of computerized systems. These information systems will not only allow for the electronic publication of scientific papers, but also for the inclusion of fragments of computer code, visualizations, animations and the like. Contributions to information systems may not even be in the form of papers anymore, but of pieces of computer code, which add functionality to the system, for example for the symbolic computation of magneto-hydrodynamic processes under astrophysical conditions. Also, sophisticated search and retrieval capabilities will be developed. Some of these services may be offered by publishers. Part of the archiving is then no longer in the hands of university libraries or astronomical organizations, but in those of commercial enterprises. This requires safeguards against the loss of scientific information, for those occasions where a commercial information provider is unable to continue his services.
We must be cautious for high expectations regarding the development of these astronomical information systems. In the end, it is the scientists who have to contribute to them. To be able to do so, they will have to adapt to the concept, and master the tools that allow them to produce their contributions. Such developments call for the assistance of IT specialists, with a background in astronomy.