D-Lib Magazine
July/August 1998

ISSN 1082-9873

Electronic Journal Publishing

Observations from Inside

Karen Hunter
Senior Vice President
Elsevier Science
New York, NY

Academic publishing is a complicated beast. Journal publishers have traditionally been author-focused. For academic scientists, the research paradigm is the experiment and the publication output is a journal article.

Academic science researchers publish to establish their claim at a specific time to a specific result. They publish to gain other forms of recognition (such as promotion and tenure) that require publication. They publish in order to have independent certification of the results and to have those certified (refereed) results archived in perpetuity. Finally, they publish to communicate with those who may be interested in their works today -- not the circle of cognoscenti (who do not need publication to be informed) but researchers in related fields, researchers in less well-connected institutions and students working their way into the inner ring.

Other areas of academia are similar to but not identical with science. Research is not necessarily experimental. The need to establish "claims" that are time-sensitive may not be (as) significant. And to the humanist or social scientist, the book -- a medium that scientists only produce when they can carve out the time to be altruistic about giving back to their field -- is a publishing form that can be leveraged in the promotion and tenure process.

If the academic researcher as author is focused in this way, the user of information has a broader horizon. Any source of information -- whether a journal article, a newspaper story, a magazine, database, or a primary source document -- can be important. The easier the access to these sources, the more likely the sources will be used [1]. It is for this reason -- improved access (meaning quicker publication, desktop access, improved search and retrieval tools, and perhaps lower cost) -- that electronic publishing takes on real significance.

If a publisher were looking only at satisfying the needs of the author (and the journal's editor), academic electronic publishing would have gone almost nowhere in the past decade. Paper is a satisfactory medium for documenting results or establishing priority (assuming everyone is on that same level playing field). It is still considered a superior medium for archiving. But instead, focusing more on the user (or on the buyer for the user, the library), academic electronic publishing has become "the" topic of all conversations within publishing. For academic publishers -- like myself -- traditionally oriented toward their editors and authors, this means a nearly complete change in approach. We can certainly learn from the popular press and journalism in acting more as an intermediary between the writer and the reader.

Until recently, much academic electronic publishing, particularly journal publishing, has been driven more by the push of librarians hoping for reduced costs than by the demands of either authors or readers. That is not to say that readers, once able to work from their desktops, do not appreciate the increased convenience. Or, if retrieval tools produce equal or better results than browsing the paper (with access to paper being an increasingly less-likely alternative, as paper subscriptions are cancelled), the user also sees the efficiency and benefits. And authors, of course, hope to be published sooner and to be more visible, more widely read and cited (adding to their ISI citation profiles). But the big push has been from the library buyer hoping to get a better bargain. Libraries have been lobbying for electronic distribution for a decade. For most researchers, interest in electronic journals started with the World Wide Web (WWW)."

The exceptions are in the building of subject-specific databases for use in doing research and consolidating the results of that research. These databases range from Italian literature to the human genome, and they are characterized as having been built by and for the researchers in that field. These databases are electronic tools -- and resources for mining -- but one can argue they are not electronic "publishing" in the sense that the word "publishing" has traditionally been used. But that too could change.

Current academic electronic publishing has characteristics of the American West in the second half of the 19th Century. It is romantic, challenging and enticing to the adventurous. Opportunities call to both the individual and the corporate entrepreneur. There is territory to be grabbed and, with the settlement of that territory, a chance to change the balance of power. It is also much more difficult and dangerous than might be anticipated at the start. In this particular version of the West, it is easy to see who the good guys are. The researchers, societies and other not-for-profit publishers wear the sheriff badges and the commercial publishers (particularly "foreign" publishers) will be the bad guys in any shoot-out at the virtual OK Corral.

So much for broad generalizations. The realities -- like all realities -- are both more mundane and possibly more exciting. The first half of the 1990s were characterized by experimentation and co-operation. In the journal area, the TULIP experiment involved sixteen universities and Elsevier Science [2]. Red Sage began with AT&T's Bell Labs, UCSF and Springer-Verlag and grew to include a much larger number of publishers [3]. Paul Ginsparg began to garner attention for his preprint server(s) at Los Alamos [4]. A few individual pioneers started their own journals and tried to move the boundaries in that way, with Stevan Harnad as perhaps the most outspoken example [5].

As the decade progressed, there was a mix of experimentation (the HEFCE and SuperJournal projects in the UK, for example [6]) and "real" product (Project Muse [7], Academic's IDEAL program [8], JSTOR [9], and ScienceDirect [10]). More and more publishers -- feeling pushed by their library customers and other publishers -- worked to offer their existing paper journals also in electronic form. Meanwhile, the number of electronic-only or electronic-first (with paper "archival" copies also distributed) grew. Co-operation tended to be replaced by competition.

In addition, "aggregators" (a 1990s word) tried to bring together collections of serials for user groups -- most successfully for undergraduates, perhaps the laziest (or simply least experienced) of researchers, therefore the group most appreciative of increased convenience.

One might think that all of this was a 1990s innovation. And, when one considers the specific effect of the Web and full text delivery, it is. But researchers have been using online tools for more than 30 years. The basic retrieval functions still being used were developed in the 1960s [11]. Many of the current full text journal publishers cut their online teeth publishing their abstracting and indexing databases. (For example, the American Chemical Society published Chemical Abstracts, and Elsevier had Excerpta Medica's EMBASE.) In the 1970s, we were unsure what the future of these databases would be. Would searchable full text mean subject indexing was not needed?  Would the ability to strip the header records from a journal's electronic typesetting files mean anyone could put together large reference databases, not just the existing secondary publishers?

The verdict may still be out on these questions. ISI has built a significant business by adding abstracts to its tables of contents, without incurring the expense of subject indexing. For the moment, the demand for well-known, comprehensive abstracting and indexing services continues. Indeed, libraries insist on the integration of these services with access to journal article full text. But whether this will continue for the next decade, as the user brought up on Yahoo and Alta Vista comes to dominate the higher education and research environment, is unclear. Will A & I services continue in their role as surrogate for full text?  As more full text is available, the picture may change.

A major university library recently said that it had already passed its Year 2000 goal of having at least 25% of its serials in electronic form. It is now offering its students and faculty electronic access to more than 7,200 serials. While that number includes not just traditional scholarly journals but also more popular magazines, it is impressive. Has the corner turned on the loudly trumpeted revolution of electronic academic publishing? Are we on the doorstep of a predominantly electronic environment?

If you judge by the number of seminars on the topic (ranging from technical standards to licensing and copyright intimacies), the long-heralded day would seem to be at hand. There are no meetings of publishers or librarians (the middlemen in the academic information chain) at which electronics is not the most talked-about topic. Paper publishing is considered old-fashioned, not sexy. Publishing staff wants to be involved in electronic developments and Web marketing.

The jargon has metamorphized. One talks of "enhanced value propositions" and "service providers", "authorized users" and "downstream access". "Text integrity" refers more to whether the electronic file has been tampered with than the quality of the information provided. The notion of electronic hosts has been superceded by the dream of universal electronic links. Everything will be connected to everything else, reachable from anywhere. At the moment, however, this is still a dream and, if achievable, it is still several years away.

The fly in this utopian ointment is cost. It is expensive for a publisher to make the transition for existing journals from paper to sophisticated, robust electronic publications that smoothly link with those of other publishers. The publisher has all of the "first copy" costs (traditionally more than 70% of the total cost), plus the direct costs of the paper edition (you cannot yet stop printing paper) and the added costs of creating databased-files that can be accurately searched, linked and distributed electronically to tailored user profiles. One can opt, of course, for a plain vanilla, unlinked approach, but most society and commercial publishers want to do more. And their readers are encouraging them to do more: desktop access to the electronic equivalent of the paper is nice, but not enough to warrant a change in format.

But where are the funds to support these enhancements? Consider the problem from both the publisher's and the library's perspectives. U.S. research libraries preach a consistent message: there is no more money. You, as a publisher, can create more sophisticated products -- indeed, we want the electronic offerings -- but there is nothing extra for the library to use to pay for them. While some efforts are underway to encourage lower-priced electronic publication, we are fast approaching a decision-point. Will you, now as the research librarian, buy paper or electronic, as you cannot afford to have both?  Pushed by librarians to offer electronic journals, publishers now face a market that will have to make decisions on which format is preferred.

These buying and format decisions will largely be made by the research librarians, not researchers. The researchers themselves, at this point, tell a fairly consistent story: we want both paper and electronic and, if forced to make a choice, choose paper. The librarians say they do not have that luxury and will, of necessity, opt for electronic delivery as soon as it is reliable and archive concerns have been satisfactorily addressed. The existing tensions between publishers and librarians (over cost and electronic use) are likely to spill over to discord between librarians and their institutional constituents before this it over. Or perhaps there will be an enlightened increase in funding of research libraries. It could happen.

To conclude with a favorite anecdote. In December of 1992, right after Bill Clinton's election and in anticipation of a change in administration, many people in Washington were appropriately concerned about losing their jobs. I was approached by a senior government librarian and asked to consider a single national U.S. electronic license for all of the Elsevier journals. (I assumed that negotiating such a license would be viewed as a coup and an accomplishment worthy of retaining one's job.) Ignoring the fact that our journals were not available electronically at that time, the questioner went on: what would such a license cost?  I did some hurried calculations and mentioned a (large) number. No reaction -- no gasping. Second question: well, then, what would an annual license cost for not just your journals but all scientific and technical journals for all of the U.S.? Gulp -- I could only guess, but suggested perhaps $2 billion or so. Reaction: "I can do that! That's two bombers!"

There were no further discussions and that person changed jobs not long into the new administration. But now, 5 1/2 years later, it is interesting to note a few things:

In the end, it is the funding -- not the needs and interests of researchers, undergraduates, editors, and authors -- that will drive the transition. And, ironically, if the current state of funding continues -- funding that is inadequate to support current research output in one format, much less in dual formats -- the transition to electronic delivery may actually go faster, as the choices between formats will have to be made more rapidly, out of financial necessity. The question is: will the state of electronic journals and electronic distribution systems be ready and will the work of the researchers be bettered by the switch?



[1]  Tom Sanville of the OhioLINK consortium has noted in public presentations a correlation between ease of access and use and the amount of use.

[2]  TULIP: The University Licensing Program <>

[3]  Red Sage: Final Report <>

[4]  Los Alamos National Laboratory <>

[5]  Harnad E-Print Archive and Psycoloquy and BBS Journal Archives <>

[6]  The SuperJournal Project <>

[7]  Project Muse <>

[8]  Academic Press: About IDEAL <>

[9]  JSTOR <>

[10]  ScienceDirect: The Gateway to Discovery <>

[11]  Trudi Bellardo Hahn, Text Retrieval Online: Historical Perspective on Web Search Engines, pp. 7-10, Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science, April/May, 1998.

© 1998 Karen Hunter

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