Electronic Access to Scientific Journals: Problems, Problems

The scientific journal dates back to the middle of the 17th century, beginning as collections of letters from investigators starting to probe the mysteries of science in a disciplined way. Very little happened to disturb the STM industry for around 300 years. The publishing model was quite simple. Most of the journals were published by scientific societies, who provided copies to members as an element of the their membership subscription. The first major change occurred after the Second World War as the rapid growth of scientific progress meant that professional societies could no longer keep pace with the supply of papers being submitted for publication. Two companies were largely responsible for breaking the mold, North Holland and Pergamon Press. These companies developed the commercial STM publishing business, where it was the publisher taking the initiative and the risk, and not just the scientific societies. The profit margins on STM publishing were very good, and the business continued to prosper until just a few years ago, other than a slight perturbation caused by the invention of the photocopier.

Then, in the mid-1990s, a number of publishers started to look at the possibilities of publishing electronic versions of scientific journals, in particular Elsevier, Academic Press, and the Institute of Physics Publishing. Since all the journals were now compiled electronically, creating a database of the text of the journals was a fairly straightforward process. Of course, it would require investment, and so the electronic journals would cost more than the print versions. And that is where the problems started.

Inflexible Budgets
The main purchasers of scientific journals have been universities and the pharmaceutical industry. For at least a decade, the price of scientific journals had been escalating above the levels of inflation. The publishers were in an enviable position, as journals are not substitutable. In other words, if the Journal of the American Chemical Society increases its price above a level deemed appropriate, a library cannot stop taking it, and replacing it with the Transactions of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Scientists need to be able to publish in what they see as the leading titles, and also wish to be able to read these titles at their desks. However, budgets have not been rising at the same rate, especially outside of North America. The result was that by the mid-1990s libraries had to make some hard decisions about cancellation.

There has been a similar picture in the pharmaceutical industry-to achieve economies of scale there have been many mergers. One result has been cutbacks in the total library budget, and again titles have been cancelled.

In principle, therefore, the ability to have access to electronic versions of journals from a publisher over an intranet would seem to be the ideal solution. However, the last few years have seen a rapid growth in both the number of electronic journals (probably over 8,000 by now from just a handful in 1996) and the number of conferences on how to cope with the technical and commercial issues arising from the advent of electronic delivery.

All That Glitters
For publishers, electronic delivery is a way of differentiating their titles from those of other publishers by providing innovative ways of searching and displaying each paper. As a result, each publisher has developed their own user interfaces. The problem is that no one walks into a library and asks for all the Elsevier journals on hypertension. They want all the journals on hypertension, independent of whom the publisher is. In the electronic world, this results in the reader having to cope with as many user interfaces as there are publishers.

A group of companies in the middle of all this are the subscription agents, such as Swets Blackwells and EBSCO. They have long provided valuable services in providing a commercial interface between librarians and publishers, dealing with ordering and locating missing copies. In the electronic world, they have now started to provide integration services, providing libraries with a consistent interface to a wide range of different publishers. In theory, this is a good idea, but in practice, there have been many problems.

For a start, subscription agents have had to come up a very steep technological learning curve, starting virtually at zero, and the reliability of some of the systems has not been all that good. In addition, the agents have had to face the problem of how to fund the investment. In the past, publishers provided agents with journals at a discounted price, and the agents billed their clients at the cover price. This might have been adequate to cover administration costs, but not the massive investment required in new systems. The result has been quite a number of acquisitions over the last couple of years. Another problem has been developing robust interfaces with the publishers, each of them wanting to retain certain functionalities.

The technical issues are nothing compared to the commercial issues. At the outset of electronic journal publishing, some publishers were charging a significant premium for electronic delivery, perhaps a pricing level 150% above the print price. This put libraries in a very difficult position, and they started to create consortia (notably OhioLink) that negotiated bulk discounts with publishers. Journals were then downloaded onto a common server for access by readers from many different institutions. For the publishers, these were very difficult negotiations, especially since they had to develop some basis for calculating the prices in the agreements.

Academic libraries in particular want to provide campus-wide access to journals, including from halls of residence, but not every student and staff member will need access to all of the thousands of journals that a typical library purchases. Publishers started to develop site licenses to cope with this, and then ran into major problems with the pharmaceutical industry in particular. A large pharmaceutical company may well have hundreds of sites worldwide, but only a few of these will have research teams. A global all-site license is, therefore, not a realistic model.

There are two other problems that have still to be resolved. The first is that in an intranet environment it is now possible for a publisher to know exactly which papers are being read, and by whom. Libraries are very keen to have this information since it would enable them, for the first time, to have reliable usage statistics on which to base their cancellation policy. For obvious reasons, publishers are unwilling to release this information! The second is who should pay for the establishment of an electronic archive? In the past, the library maintained an archive of paper copies, but now some libraries are discontinuing their paper subscriptions and relying on electronic versions. Should it be the library that maintains an electronic archive or the publisher?

This is Only the Beginning
In theory, librarians and users see very clearly the benefits of being able to access a world of scientific and medical research through an intranet. In practice, the issues are extremely complex, and there are only a very few signs of positive progress towards their solution. Scientific publishing is a delicate linear chain from author to publisher to library to reader, with the subscription agent acting as an important intermediary. Any change in one relationship in the chain can have a very serious and unforeseen impact on other members of the chain.

There is no doubt that there is a great willingness by all the parties concerned to resolve some of the many current problems, but given the number of publishers is well in excess of 10,000, this is not going to happen overnight. There are many small publishers who have journal titles of global significance and value (such as Nature or Science) so a deal with just the larger publishers may only provide access to less than 10% of the titles in a library.

The last few years have seen significant progress in providing access to business and financial information through an intranet to the user desktop. The business models are fairly clear, and the business is, in any case, the province of a relatively few publishers. In the case of access to scientific research, the true benefits of intranet access are still open to question until a much greater degree of harmony exists between publishers and librarians. It is going to be some years yet before that happens.