Publishing on the Internet - A Proposal for the Future

Stephen R. Heller
Beltsville, MD 20705 USA

This TrAC Internet column contains some comments on the mechanics of this column, current electronic publishing and some musings on the future of electronic publishing. I would hope this will stimulate some lively discussions on these matters.

One of the most talked about Internet issues for the chemical community is electronic publishing and its potential impact [1-3]. For the past two hundred or so years, technical competence, reputation, promotion, tenure, and other indications of advancement, have been largely based on printed publications. As I have indicated before [4] journal articles have been and continue to be the most socially acceptable form of communication and reward/promotion. At present the main electronic involvement of many scientific manuscripts is that they are submitted in electronic form, using one of a number of word processing programs. Essentially all refereeing of scientific manuscripts is accomplished by postal system mail, with some refereeing done by FAX or electronic mail (e-mail) [5].

With the dwindling number of subscriptions to printed scientific journals (where publishers had historically made the bulk of their profits) publishers have good reason to be concerned about the future of printed information. Many publishers of scientific and technical materials are experimenting with ways to enter the electronic information age. At the present time there are many experiments in electronic publishing. A number of journals are now either partially [6] or completely electronic [7].

One experiment in the area of electronic publishing is this Internet column. As a test, Elsevier has agreed to mount all the manuscripts from this column on their world wide web (WWW) server [8] . Another "experimental first" part of this column is that all manuscripts are being submitted electronically. Manuscripts (including figures) are transmitted to me, the column editor, by e-mail. I then select a number of referees and forward an electronic copy of the manuscript. The resulting comments are then sent back to the author by e-mail. The corrected manuscript is then returned to me. I forward it on to the Elsevier office in Amsterdam. This has helped to speed up publication by a few months at the least. At this time TrAC is able to get a manuscript in press about 3-4 months after the manuscript is first submitted. This time frame appears to be a reasonable goal for other journals to go in the future, but only after enough referees are able to perform this electronic processing of manuscripts. Of course the Internet column manuscripts in TrAC come from experienced computer and Internet users, so the process is viewed as reasonable. Overall, as the use of computers by chemists is low, this method is likely to take time before this process is considered normal.

Where is all this likely to lead? As I once mentioned in a lecture: The paperless office is as practical as the paperless bathroom. Stated another way, it is unlikely that printed copies of books and journals are going to disappear for a very long time. The computer, with its vast speed, search, and retrieval abilities is, without a doubt, a very helpful tool. Computers can do many things more quickly, efficiently, and cheaply than people can. Exhaustive database searching is trivial for a correctly programmed computer, but could be a lifelong task for a person. While one can find things quickly in a computerized database, I contend one can't or won't sit in front of a computer screen and read page after page of scientific articles. One can't easily bring the computer screen on the bus, train, or sit at a cafe table sipping tea and reading, nor would most people want to.

It seems that a possible scenario system for publishing in the future would be made up of the components as today, with changes in the way some aspects are handled. The appropriate use of computers is critical. It is important to remember that computer technology should be on tap, not on top. Below is one possible outline for publishing in the next century.

  1. Manuscripts are prepared in computer readable form and sent by e-mail to the editor/publisher. Figures and tables are included in the e-mail as attachments to the text materials.Manuscripts are prepared in computer readable form and sent by e-mail to the editor/publisher. Figures and tables are included in the e-mail as attachments to the text materials.
  2. Manuscripts are sent to and received back from reviewers electronically by e-mail. For those manuscripts which are found acceptable, the reviewers comments are merged together using a word processing program.
  3. The comments from the reviewers are read by the column editor and then are sent by e-mail back to the author. The manuscript is then revised by the author and sent back to the editor and then to the publisher [9].
  4. The article is then accepted and "published", both on paper and in electronic form, and the abstract and reference are made available in hard copy and in a computer system.

All of the above can and should be done electronically. The above assumed scenario leaves out the current abstracting services. I believe that this assumption is a reasonable and quite possible direction in which to go. The abstracting services have provided a valuable product in the age of all printed publications. However, in the future, in the electronic age, the need for these organizations and their large highly competent staffs are not likely to find a economically viable role. As more and more publications are computer readable, with their own computer readable author abstracts, the need for additional processing, particularly abstracting, decreases. Keywords can be created by the author, as they are already done in some publications. With the entire manuscript being in computer readable form, it would also be possible to run the entire manuscript through a computer program, which has a dictionary and thesaurus, to automatically extract keywords and search terms. Such abstracts and keywords could then be linked together for searching in a manner similar to the way information is now searched on the Internet using, for example, the Carnegie- Mellon University Lycos search engine [10] . The issue of languages other than english will be dealt with at a later date [11].

As for the publishers, there is also a reasonable scenario indicating their days of economical viability, essentially as they are now, may be limited. With the advent of computer technology and eventual acceptance, publishers will be viewed as middlemen, and probably as unnecessary and expensive middlemen. At present, whether for Time magazine or Trends in Analytical Chemistry , one pays a subscription fee up front, and receives printed materials at regular intervals. Getting all the money, and getting it in advance is a situation that publishers would like to have continue forever.

Before finishing this view of publishing in the future, let me add one more piece to this view. For the past decade, and with increasing speed in the 1990's, financial pressures have been brought to bear on all organizations. For the purposes of this article I will focus on the organizations associated with publishing scientific manuscripts. The bulk of manuscripts come from universities, government labs, research organizations, and industry where advancement is measured primarily in terms of journal publications (and increasingly for universities and government labs in the past decade, for patents). Each is undergoing reorganizing, downsizing for the same end result - to get costs down and to keep them down. At the same time organizations are looking for ways to increase their incomes, and keep them up. Universities have set up foundations and corporations to handle the business aspects of their faculties' potential commercial efforts. The US Government has established cooperative agreements in many forms to work with industry and, at least for the government scientist, share in the potential financial success of the project (via such mechanisms as sharing royalties on patents). Universities are taking substantial funding from commercial organizations (who find it cheaper than doing in-house research), as government research grants become harder to obtain. Today all universities have "efforts underway to develop new sources of revenue" [12].

This brings me now to my new scenario for the publishing in the next century. What would happen if, universities, and the other organizations which create the manuscripts decide they want to receive compensation from publishing. What would happen if they require all faculty and staff (in all departments) to publish their research in the university or company electronic press (and print press)? This is similar to their counterparts in industry who have had to turn over their discoveries to their company for patenting. (In those cases where there is joint publishing between organizations, an agreement would have to be reached in advance as to where the manuscripts would be published and how the income would be divided.)

Such electronic journals and software programs could become part of the academic, government, and industrial chemist's reward/promotion and tenure system. Peer review could go as usual, using peers in the field from other universities or organizations. With electronic manuscripts, there is no need to have hundreds of different journals, perhaps just a few very large (and using economy of scale less expensive to create, print, and distribute) printed repositories. One could simply create a computer-based organization where papers are indexed, stored, and retrieved in their appropriate subject discipline or cross disciplines if appropriate. Properly linked together all the intellectual information would be become part of an organization's assets.

While some universities, government, non-profit, and industry organizations might be too small to undertake such ventures, one could see consortiums being established to have smaller organizations work together. Some organizations might even contract, for a fee, with a publisher to handle the process. (Right now some universities are licensing their sport team logos for millions of dollars a year [13]).

Without a doubt such a structure would have to be staffed, in a manner similar to the way publishing companies are currently staffed. Thus there is no absolute need to eliminate publishing companies [14] . As for the ownership and copyright of the materials, that would reside with the university, or organization which generated the intellectual property. One should recall that the growth of private publishing companies is a relatively new phenomena, with the real growth coming only in the past 50 years.

As to the matter of funding it would seem reasonable to expect a good university (with first rate faculty and first rate research) could charge more for access to their store of knowledge than a less prominent organization. Fixed fees or subscriptions would cover a good deal of the cost. For those who would actually want to see and read articles, there would be fees for the downloading/printing of articles. Computer systems would be developed to electronically "count" all the uses and accesses of information and handle the overall bookkeeping. The existing repositories of computer readable abstracts and journals could be connected to the system so that all the historical knowledge would neither be lost or unavailable.

One interesting measure of quality and accountability which could come out of such an electronic system would be the number of times a manuscript was accessed and the number of times it was downloaded. This could be one possible measure of the value of a manuscript - to be used for reward and promotion. This would be similar to the ISI citation index.

Many parts of this proposal need refinement and actual experimental testing. However these pieces as described above are one way to start to put together a total system approach for the future of producing and disseminating intellectual property under the constraints of modern society. I would hope that I, and others would begin to develop more detailed plans for this new approach and develop actual prototype systems for experimenting, testing, and evaluation. Today there are many new electronic experiments, but most are individual experiments, not institutional experiments. Good results are less likely to survive without the proper administrative and institutional foundations. Further discussion, details of this proposal, and issues of quality control, peer review, languages, and copyright can be found elsewhere [11].


[1] H. Rzepa (15 Jan 1994), R. Stumpe (1 Feb 1994), and T. T. Pierce (2 Feb 1994), E-mail messages on the (Computational Chemistry listserver ).

[2] G. Wiggins (8 June 1995), E-mail message on the Chemical Information listserver .

[3] P. Hymans, Monitor, 172, 2-3, June 1995.

[4] S. R. Heller, "The Future of Chemical Information Activities", J. Chem. Inf. Comput. Sci., 33(1993)284-291.

[5] In discussions with a number of journal editors I would estimate that less than 1% of the refereeing is handled electronically at this time.


[7] E-print was initiated by P. Ginsparg, Los Alamos National Labs, in 1991. To view it, point your web browser at: See G. Taubes, Science, 259, (1993).

[8] For these TrAC articles point your browser to:

[9] This manuscript was sent to seven reviewers. Six reviews were received back within 12 days and the manuscript sent to the publisher 2 days later.


[11] S. Heller, Invited lecture, 11th ICCCRE, Paris, July 17, 1995 and S. Heller, Invited lecture, ACS Chicago, August 1995. CINF Division, paper #xx.

[12] E. El-Khawas, American Council on Education, Research Briefs, 5, #8, page 1 (1994).

[13] Business Week, May 22,1 995, page 6.

[14] In reference [6e] Borman writes that "electronic publishing can be so inexpensive that some scientists and librarians are already beginning to view traditional publishers as obsolete middlemen."