A 12-Step Program for Electronic Scholarly Publishing

By Dixon, Anne | Searcher, January 1998 | Go to article overview

A 12-Step Program for Electronic Scholarly Publishing


Dixon, Anne, Searcher


Electronic publishing in scientific, technical and medical publishing is like the daughter in a dysfunctional family. Dad is an over-worked and underfunded librarian; Mom, an information-overloaded researcher; Sister, a distraught publisher. Yet we hope that this child will grow up to become a shining, intelligent and graceful adult who will -- somehow - overcome her upbringing. Only with a huge amount of nurturing, however, can this happen.

The realities of electronic publishing are becoming increasingly apparent. The electronic transition has not proven very cheap for libraries, as Ann Okerson has observed [Editor's note: "See Background Sources Sidebar" for all authors and articles referenced within this feature], and even agents for change such as Odlyzko agree that the transition is likely to be complicated. As a practitioner at the sharp end, I can only agree.

Physicists and physics have a unique relationship with the Internet and the World Wide Web. They are interdependent for their very existence in the case of the Web. Physics publishing is also unusual in that it has relatively few players and in that not-for-profit learned societies play a much larger role than in many other disciplines.

There are many thousands of journals published in the scientific, technical, and medical areas total worldwide, with on average just two or three titles issued by each publisher. In physics there are 1,516 journals published, with the top 10 publishers representing over 80 percent of titles. Of this top 10, three are learned society publishers.

A typical journal publisher is small in size, concentrates on operational issues, and has little time or experience to indulge in expensive and risky new media development projects from which they can foresee only questionable, if any, payback, as Brown discovered back in 1994. A typical physics publisher has more staff and assets to devote to electronic publishing, which is just as well, because physicists have been demanding electronic projects and services since the 1980s. Indeed the first ever electronic journal in physics, Classical and Quantum Gravity, published by my group in 1994, was produced primarily due to reader demand.

The Overbearing Uncles

Uncle Sam is the overbearing uncle in our dysfunctional family. The United States of America dominates all aspects of electronic publishing. Eighty percent of resolved Internet Protocol (IP) addresses lodge in the U.S.; 64 percent of Internet hosts are American; the U.S. gathers 59 percent of the world's online service market revenue (worth $13.8 billion in 1994 ); and the U.S. represents 28.6 percent of all physics journals output, as well as being by far the largest of the 60 or so territories in which physics publishing occurs.

The other uncle in our family who also dominates represents the money business. A Department of Trade and Industry 1994 survey showed that 77.55 percent of online services' total revenues were generated by the financial services sector, with scientific, technical, and medical revenues accounting for just 0.005 percent. This situation persists despite the fact that 31 percent of the 9,000 or so online databases in the world fall in the business sector, while 27 percent come from the scientific, technical and medical (STM) sector.

The Paycheck

Funding electronic publishing is a complex process. To date, government funding has dominated. In the United Kingdom alone the E-Lib programme had funds of 35 million [pounds sterling]. The National Science Foundation in the United States has supplied active support too. In the physics world, the NSF has put several millions of dollars into the Los Alamos pre-print programme. The European Union has many initiatives, all with multi-million ECU budgets. This state of affairs is mirrored in nearly every major country in the world. But of course central governments have no intention of funding electronic publishing ad infinitum. …

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A 12-Step Program for Electronic Scholarly Publishing
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