The e-world is not eco-friendly
Commentary - David Sharp on why science publishers are facing their greatest crisis for 300 years
The paper-based learned periodical may have been serving science well for more than 300 years, but it is now under heavy fire. George Bernard Shaw had little time for publishers and believed that you need only authors and booksellers. Many of today's scientists agree. However, some go further, arguing that, in this age of the World Wide Web, booksellers, too, are redundant. You need only authors.
Some academic and professional institutions still publish their journals independently, but, for the most part, publishing houses either own journals outright or have contracts with the institutions that hold the titles. Household names such as Nature and the Lancet do not own themselves. These big publishers no doubt play a fashionable management game called Swot, in which strengths and weaknesses and opportunities and threats are paraded. All too often, the same factors turn up under all four headings. To science publishers, the internet is indeed both threat and opportunity, strength and weakness, and 2001 is shaping up to be a crunch year.
The World Wide Web provides the opportunity for both established publishers and competitive newcomers to cobble together cross-referencing, search and access packages with names such as Science Direct, Cross Ref, E-BioMed, HighWire and Web of Science. What the scientist-user wants is web-based, rapid, searchable access to full journal texts (abstracts are easy) without the need for irksome manual searches or trips to the library - only to discover that the volume is already on loan.
Complaints about science publishing began long before the internet. In the inflationary 1970s, one British science publisher sent out review copies with an apologia for high prices, something about which book reviewers had been getting cross. Today, the focus is more on journals. Libraries became so fed up with subscription rates that one publisher announced that future increases would be kept to single figures, in percentage terms. Librarians, with budgets so tight that getting a new journal on to the shelves often means cancelling an existing subscription, may not be impressed by this gesture. Commercial publishers are now offering or negotiating deals on multiple-user electronic access. But this access is not free, and university libraries remain worried.
However, should we be talking of shelves and paper at all? Print, paper and postage are expensive. Paul Ginsparg's Los Alamos website (now moving to Cornell University) was long a valued information source for physicists and proved no threat to journals in that discipline. We cannot be sure that such peaceful coexistence will be replicated in other disciplines, such as medicine, but there is no shortage of experiments.
The turn of the century saw the birth of two similar-sounding but different animals, PubMed Central and BioMed Central. The former was conceived within a public service, the US National Institutes of Health. The latter is the product of private enterprise. PubMed Central wanted to provide, at first exclusively via its own website, free access to journal articles as soon as publishers allow, which is up to 12 months after their appearance in print. However, progress has been slow and, so far, only 20 journals are co-operating. PubMed Central also spoke of publishing research that had not appeared in print, but that project now seems to have been taken up by the electronic "journals" of London-based BioMed Central.
Another threat to publishers stems from a rethink about intellectual property. When both research and libraries are paid for by government, the taxpayer is paying twice - once for the research and again to commercial publishers so that other scientists may have access to that same research. Enter the Public Library of Science, an advocacy group that is telling publishers to make journal articles free via the web within six months of publication, or else.
Or else what, you may ask. More than 26,000 scientists support the PLS stand, and the threat is that, from next month, those scientists will no longer write for, submit to, referee for or otherwise assist publishers that do not co-operate. The group is based in the United States and is biomedical in orientation, but the signatories come from 170 countries. Predictably, the big science publishers are not happy with the PLS proposal. And campaigns for cheaper or even free information for developing countries is another pressure with which publishers are grappling.
An article in Nature a few years ago was headed "The writing is on the web for science journals in print", and in 1997 I heard the prediction that, "by the year 2020, paper biomedical journals will be extinct". The irony is that when scientists trawling the internet find text they want, they print it. Paper itself is certainly not becoming extinct: the e-world is not eco-friendly. So will traditional science publishing be extinguished by web-driven competition? We do not know yet, not least because the newer models are largely untested. At least the PLS campaign is forcing publishers to re-examine the value they add. From now on, publishers may have narrower windows of opportunity to profit from their contribution to the diffusion of knowledge. To survive, they will need to be increasingly innovative in the face of established competitors and others not even conceived a decade ago. It will be tough, and so it should be.
David Sharp is a contributing editor to the Lancet, which is owned by Elsevier Science