Nature 407, 291 (2000) Is your journal really necessary?

From: Declan Butler <dbutler_at_CYBERCABLE.FR>
Date: Thu, 21 Sep 2000 02:09:26 +0200

 21 September 2000

Nature 407, 291 (2000) Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Is your journal really necessary?


Declan Butler is European correspondent of Nature .

Science may best prosper if print journals are replaced by online

"What I like about Nature is that it is the sort of journal you read in the
toilet." While there is no doubt a quip to be made about other potential
uses of Nature's pages in such a setting, this comment, by a prominent
French geneticist, is flattering. It testifies to reader appreciation of the
costly professional input that goes into producing readable journals of high
scientific and editorial quality.

Many of the challenges faced by the staff of Nature are shared by the
editors of the dozen or so fledging journals reviewed in the following
pages. The expressed motivations for creating these journals encapsulate
many core functions of journals: to attract top papers, to promote rigorous
peer review, to collate material within a discipline — in the words of
Traffic: The International Journal of Intracellular Transport (see page
299), to create "a central journal to gather together publications that are
of most interest to those working on cellular trafficking" — or work
scattered across many disciplines, as in the case of Interfaces and Free
Boundaries: Modeling, Analysis and Computation (see page 297).

Another function, well exemplified in three new gene-therapy journals (see
page 292), is to review, to regularly take stock of published work, and
trends. All these core functions of a journal share a commitment to impose
intellectual rigour and high editorial standards on an exponentially
increasing body of knowledge, so as to make that information more accessible
and placed in a wider context.

Faced with such needs, the response has usually been to create printed
journals to make the new data more manageable. But are there now better ways
of meeting the same needs? The answer is an unequivocal 'Yes'. Admittedly,
print has a look and feel missing — for the moment — in the electronic
world. But the plethora of print journals is doomed to extinction; it makes
no economic sense and is increasingly a hindrance to science itself.

Not all print journals will disappear. Journals whose content can command a
large readership will continue to exist, and indeed flourish, in print, as
their economics are akin to those of the magazine market. But the bulk of
journals are consulted no more than 50 times a year in a typical library,
and only 15% more than 250 times. Subscribing just to the handful of
journals reviewed here will set you back several thousand dollars. The costs
of print are difficult to justify for most journals (see Nature 397,
195–200; 1999). In a free market, high-cost/low-circulation journals would
be forced to go electronic, or disappear.

The current proliferation of low-circulation journals means that even the
richest libraries cannot subscribe to them all. The toll-gates of high
subscriptions of thousands of print journals are thus a fundamental and
unnecessary barrier to knowledge. But this so-called "serials crisis",
although immediately acute, is not the major reason most journals are
destined to exist only electronically.

What will drive change is Internet functionality. I do not refer to small
improvements, such as better and faster searching, but to an imminent
paradigm shift in scientific publishing and data handling. The core
functions of a journal are the intelligent commissioning, editing and
grouping of material to meet the needs of communities.

But in the future an electronic paper's content will be linked and matched
automatically to related material across the entire literature, using
increasingly sophisticated algorithms, rejuvenating serendipity and
interdisciplinarity. The web is ideal for aiding the core journal function
of regrouping work scattered across many disciplines.

But in this inevitable electronic world, the invisible hand of professional
publishers and editors will be as important as it is now, and there will be
costs attached. Indeed, as the flood of information grows, more and not less
human editorial skill will be needed to make sense of it. At the same time,
market demand for access across the entire literature will drive imaginative
deals between publishers and libraries to make such access affordable.
Transferring these costs from libraries to the users themselves, for example
on the basis of metered use, would also allow market forces to turn the
distorted scholarly publishing market into a competitive one.

The possibilities of sophisticated matching of personalized editorial
selections across large swathes of the literature, and the need to lower
barriers to access, should in themselves be sufficient to convince
scientists tempted to create low-circulation print journals to consider
web-only options. Arguments that electronic-only will hinder access of
developing countries to science is nonsense. The reality is that a library
in Kinshasa would be lucky if it could afford to subscribe to a handful of
print journals; the web promises developing countries access to scientific
information they could previously only have dreamed of.

But the essential function of a journal is to serve a particular community.
The next web revolution will be a plethora of next-generation communities
linking papers, people and data. So next time you think about launching a
print journal, unless you have sufficient readership to survive in a free
competitive market, do your colleagues and science a favour by considering
instead what your community needs, and launch the answer online. I predict
that this change will occur in under five years; if I am wrong, I will eat
my journal.

Nature  Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2000 Registered No. 785998 England.
Received on Mon Jan 24 2000 - 19:17:43 GMT

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