Experiments in scientific publishing

As a newly appointed professor of publishing management, I will be preparing students for a future in publishing. This is a big responsibility and raises questions both institutional and personal. Where is publishing headed? Where do I stand on that trajectory? I set about asking myself some of those questions.

Alexander, you spent many years working as a scientist, what was your experience with scientific literature?

When I was working the early nineties at the research center Jülich during my PhD as a scientist, obtaining published scientific information was just beginning to become digitized, but still followed the patterns of decades of good and best practice. Though I no longer had to use card catalogues, to follow developments in my research area I regularly went to the library because relevant information was published in the newly released editions of the major scientific journals. The interesting publications I then copied on the spot, which took quite a long time per article. Searching in catalogues was almost a secret of its own because you had to perform cryptic and complicated searches on a computer workstation or browse through microfiches. Alternatively, one could ask somebody at the library to perform the search and copy for you but this took a couple of days or weeks depending on the complexity of your query. One can hardly imagine that today, if you have not experienced it yourself. I would love to see a survey of how often research physicists today still actually go to the library. But the thrill of discovering something new, unexpected and relevant, when browsing through the scientific literature, information that could bring one to the next level of a research project – that has certainly stayed the same.

“I would love to see a survey of how often research physicists today still actually go to the library.”

When did the internet gain a greater importance for the daily work of scientists?

The mid-nineties was quite an upheaval. Suddenly we communicated less by phone and started to use email when talking to research colleagues in other locations. You could also then research library catalogs online or via the intranet of the institution, rather than looking articles up in cumbersome printed directories or indexes. That was experienced as a significant gain in comfort. In the second half of that decade more and more universities or research institutions offered the recent issues of the most important journals online, so that you could view interesting articles directly at your computer screen and print it if required. From then on, in principal, the level of comfort in browsing, searching, and accessing was comparable to the situation today. Of course, there were large differences in the electronic supply, depending on the institution and also depending on the subject area. In the humanities, this development started many years later and has still not achieved the same level as in the natural sciences.

“…more and more universities or research institutions offered the recent issues of the most important journals online, so that you could view interesting articles directly at your computer screen and print it if required.”

Can one speak of a systematic transformation in the way scientific literature is searched for and accessed?

Yes, in the area of STM (Scientific/Technical/Medical) literature I experienced it as a dramatic change within a few years, both in research as well as in the reception of the publications.

What else has changed in the process?

Interestingly, little: besides being translated into a digital environment, the entire path from manuscript to publication, the editorial and technical workflow, as well as the publication itself has not been so thoroughly affected by this change process, and why? It is of course oversimplified, but one could say that a publication which had been disseminated in printed form as part of a scientific journal issue was now available in an electronic format. No more and no less. The main advantage of that change of “packaging” was a reduction in the time period between release of the journal issue and access for the reader. That time period consisted of the span in which a new journal issue was published, shipped by (surface) mail to a library at the other end of the world which cataloged it and made it physically available on the library shelf, until finally a scientist could read the article. This took weeks, if it not several months, as one can easily imagine.

“…one could say that a publication which had been disseminated in printed form as part of a scientific journal issue was now available in an electronic format. No more and no less.”

Electronic publishing has thus accelerated the availability of scientific information?

Yes and no. That important potential time savings which could have arisen from online publishing was not immediately implemented by most scholarly publishers in the early years. Individual articles were still collected for a physical issue of the journal and then only electronically published when the printed volume had been released. Surprisingly, both the publishers and editors of their journals clung to this old-fashioned structure for many years. However, more and more publishers recognized in the years after the turn of the millennium that it made sense to publish individual articles online immediately after completion and release. The electronically published articles were unpaginated and the pagination was done after the compilation of the full issue. Publishers who recognized a market advantage then introduced fancy names for this „online first,” “ahead of print”, or “early view”. Nevertheless, many others have kept traditional modes of issue-based publishing as it had been over decades, in particular in the humanities, social sciences, or law, despite the fact that there are few reasons why one should not publish a scientific article immediately.

“Individual articles were still collected for a physical issue of the journal and then only electronically published when the printed volume had been released.”

Was the long period until the publication of scientific paper the reason for the emergence of preprint servers?

The publication of manuscripts often takes weeks, months or even years from the time of initial submission. While the technical preparation, typesetting, copyediting and language polishing of a manuscript will usually not exceed four to six weeks, peer-reviewing often requires several months in addition to the technical handling of an article because manuscripts must undergo extensive reviewer critique in a peer-reviewed journal. The demand for a quick exchange of current research results within a group of peers or the scientific community has led researchers to distribute in advance those versions of their manuscripts known as preprints. Preprints are manuscripts that have yet to undergo the peer reviewing process. Particularly in physics this has become a standard procedure since the early nineties with the arXiv preprint server. Again it has been the rise of the internet which has enabled researchers to increasingly distribute their preprints electronically rather than as paper copies to speed up the flow of information.

“The demand for a quick exchange of current research results within a group of peers or the scientific community has led researchers to distribute in advance those versions of their manuscripts known as preprints.”

Publishers have only cautiously explored the capabilities of the new medium?

I moved from research into the publishing industry in the early 2000s and have thus followed this development carefully. At the beginning there were lively discussions in our publishing teams about whether one should ever offer an electronic version of the content or not.

That sounds surprising, what were the reasons for the reluctance?

Many colleagues believed that electronic publishing would be a threat for their sales and margins in journals publishing. They were simply afraid that publishers would lose money – a fear not completely unfounded. In the early days of the internet there were some spectacular examples where publishers ventured too much, such as in the newspaper or encyclopedia branches, and completely lost their customer base, allowing for the rise of alternatives such as Wikipedia. At the beginning of the digital age most publishers had no experience with the use of electronic content. In particular, they had no idea about what business models could combine both print and electronic sales of their journals. At the same time there were rumors that libraries or institutions might cancel journal subscriptions because in principle any individual user at an institution now had access to an electronic version of the journal content. To bypass this threat, publishers introduced concepts to technically restrict the access only to a single user at a time. This limitation, however, drastically reduced the key advantage of an electronic availability of scholarly literature. Since then the libraries have succeeded to demanding unrestricted access for all its users at the same time and to the same content.

“At the beginning of the digital age most publishers had no experience with the use of electronic content. In particular, they had no idea about what business models could combine both print and electronic sales of their journals.”

When looking back how do you evaluate that attitude of publishing industry?

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. Publishers seemed to act often reluctantly, almost fearfully, when it came to adaptations or exploration of new possibilities in electronic publishing. While working in the publishing industry at various publishers, I heard more than once the statement “let the other publishers test the waters”, before deciding to make an innovation or investment in electronic media. Such short-sightedness and sometimes narrow-mindedness has occasionally really surprised me, because the industry was then economically very well-positioned. From the perspective of corporate strategy it seems smart to invest in new technologies or business models when times are good, rather than reacting later to market pressures.

“Publishers seemed to act often reluctantly, almost fearfully, when it came to adaptations or exploration of new possibilities in electronic publishing.”

How far have we come from today’s perspective?

In the natural sciences and medicine we now have almost full coverage of scientific information in an electronic format. In those areas new subject area content is almost exclusively browsed and accessed electronically. The situation in the humanities is also starting to change.

Has the vision of a paperless office arrived on researchers’ desk?

No, I would not go that far. On the contrary, I often discovered during my visits of scientists that their desks are piled high with publications they have printed from the internet. When asked, they commonly said that it is their material for reading of the current week which they plan to work through in the evening or when travelling next time. Incidentally, I also prefer reading pages of longer texts on paper rather than on a screen. However, the use of e-readers is on the rise and it may well be the case that the next generation of professors will work completely differently.

“I often discovered during my visits of scientists that their desks are piled high with publications they have printed from the internet.”

Are researchers going to change their reading habits with the appearance of mobile reading devices such as e-readers, smartphones or tablets?

I think it will take some time until you can read a scientific paper with tables, graphs and pictures on a small smartphone in such a way that you can work with it seriously. Nevertheless, using an e-reader or tablet PC rather than a smartphone is a different story. Here I expect to see more and more researchers using those devices in the near future. I myself see not only students, but also especially researchers who use these devices frequently to take important or new publications with them and then read it when an opportunity arises. I think many of us know that feeling of looking forward to a train or plane trip with no access to e-mail so that we can read in a concentrated way for a few hours. And that without piles of paper to print out and carry around.

“I expect to see more and more researchers using e-reader or tablet PCs in the near future. I myself see not only students, but also especially researchers who use these devices frequently to take important or new publications with them […]”

What is required for this trend to continue?

Publishers or any aggregator of scientific content will have to process all material in a media-neutral format. Then the content can be easily accessed on today’s and future mobile reading devices. A conversion into a PDF, however, is no longer adequate. Rather texts must be converted into XML and tagged. Then users can easily navigate through the publications, display the text without moving around and depending on the size of their screens and can view pictures in different resolutions. These are – once again in time – purely technical requirements that must be provided by those aggregators which will mediate scholarly content in the future. There are some excellent experiments out there such as the new  PubReaderTM developed by the NIH and I expect to see more to come.

“Publishers or any aggregator of scientific content will have to process all material in a media-neutral format. Then the content can be easily accessed on today’s and future mobile reading devices.”

//TO BE CONTINUED

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