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February 2002
Vol. 5, No. 2, p 7.
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Cost basis

Every January, the American Chemical Society gathers the editors of all its magazines and journals together to discuss the state of scientific publishing and the many issues that face editors and publishers. Some problems, not surprisingly, involve money and resources. A proposal has been made by members of the biochemistry research community that calls for publishers in medicine and the life sciences to make their journal articles freely available, presumably on the Web, within six months of initial publication. In the view of the management of the ACS Publications Division, this proposal, if implemented, could adversely affect the future of scientific publishing at ACS by diminishing the resources needed to maintain the high quality of today’s peer-reviewed journals.

ACS is part of the scientific, technical, and medical (STM) publishing enterprise. The Publications Division produces 31 research journals and 3 magazines. Some, such as the Journal of the American Chemical Society, have been around for more than a century. The newest addition to the ACS periodical list, already on the Web and debuting in print this month, is the Journal of Proteome Research, edited by Bill Hancock of ThermoFinnigan Corporation. In the past five years, ACS has begun publishing five new journals or magazines, one of which you hold in your hands. (A complete list of periodicals is available on the ACS Web site).

So if the ACS is introducing new publications at this rate, how bad can the resource challenges be? In one way or another, these problems revolve around the Internet. Specifically, who owns the content of Web pages, and what should the owner charge for access?

In the old days (read pre-1995), ownership didn’t seem to be an issue. Everything was printed on paper, and no one argued that paper should be free. Now comes along the Internet, where, with a simple Google search, almost everything seems at first glance to be available for free. But in reality, everything has a cost.

STM publishing is changing from a business in which everything revolved around the printed page to a business in which everything revolves around the computer. In ACS’s publications, research papers are put on a journal’s Web site within a day or two of author approval of their manuscript galleys, a date that is often weeks before the journal is printed. Operationally, this means that STM publishing has become a continuum of article availability in which every so often the publisher takes a paper “picture” of the articles received and accepted. This snapshot paper copy of the database is then sent out to subscribers, primarily corporate and academic libraries.

As more journal articles are published, library space becomes a premium. For this and many other reasons, ACS has chosen to make its backfile of printed journals available electronically. This means the scanning and processing of 2.5 million pages of material amounting to 300 gigabytes of data. The cost of producing this backfile of information is considerable, but its existence will save libraries a great deal of space and money.

ACS plans to charge libraries for access to the backfile of all its journals, a position that is not in keeping with the “all should be free on the Web” spirit of some. However, money devoted to making the backfile available on the Web, if unrecovered from users, can jeopardize the ability of organizations like ACS to contribute to the furthering of science.

Such a limitation would be regrettable.

James Ryan

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