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September 2001
Vol. 10, No. 09, p 29.
Industry Facts & Figures
Scientific publishing: An abstract portrait

Since 1960, the number of chemistry research papers in print increased nearly sixfold.

Scientific publications are a fundamental tool for chemists in the processes of research, discovery, and advancement. Since the first modern research journal, initiated in 1665 by the Royal Society of London, such publications have fostered an environment of education and communication (as well as competition) in the science community.

As science accelerated and more specializations were established, the volume and variety of publications rose to meet the needs of modern research. It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s, though, that scientific journal publishing became a truly profit-making endeavor in its own right. Previously the role of publisher had been filled chiefly by nonprofit societies, such as the American Chemical Society, which served to disseminate the fruits of the members’ labors. But when the demand for manuscript publication began to overwhelm this quasi-public system, commercial publishers seized the opportunity and launched extensive collections of journals.

Table 1. 40 Years of Scientific Publications in Chemistry as Tracked by Chemical Abstracts Service
In the past 40 years, the number of scientific papers in chemistry (as tracked and abstracted by Chemical Abstracts Service) rose from 104,484 in 1960 to 573,469 in 2000 (www.cas.org/EO/casstats.pdf)—not quite a sixfold increase, but still respectable (see Table 1). Meanwhile, patents (a significant form of “publication” indeed for tracking the apparent commercial productivity of science—or at least of the hopes and ambitions of scientists) increased between six- and sevenfold.

According to Mary Case, the director of scholarly communication for the Association of Research Libraries, faculty chemists increased their article publications between 1967 and 1999 from 4.9 articles per two years to 10.8, with the largest growth among associate and full professors (www.arl.org/sparc/resources/03%2D01arl/u%5Fpitt%2Darl.ppt). She cites the perceived need to publish to attract and retain external funding and a larger pool of graduates who spend more time as postdocs, thereby providing a publication workforce for senior faculty members.

But how do scientists keep up? ISI (http://sunweb.isinet.com/isi/hot/essays/selectionofmaterialforcoverage/199701.html), a research database organization, reports, “In the mid-1950s, S. C. Bradford realized that the core literature for any scientific discipline was composed of fewer than 1000 journals. Of these 1000 journals, there are relatively few with a very strong relevance to the given topic.” Many of the other journals proved of weaker relevance or focused primarily on another discipline. The upshot is that for any individual discipline, most important papers are published in relatively few journals—hence the competition and importance of quality citation. Although the ISI database focuses on more than 16,000 international journals, books, and proceedings in the sciences and humanities, its focus in science is on a core of approximately 2000 journals. It is these that ISI claims account for about 85% of published articles and 95% of cited articles.

Because this core is not static, publishers scramble to become or to maintain the status of being a core journal and to grab the high ground as being first in whatever appears to be a developing new discipline.

So don’t be surprised when you see ACS or any other publisher coming out with new journal titles. Scientific publishing is a necessary and healthy component of the scientific enterprise as a whole.


David Filmore is a staff editor and Mark S. Lesney is a senior editor at Today’s Chemist at Work.. Send your comments or questions regarding this article to tcaw@acs.org or the Editorial Office 1155 16th St N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

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