Submitted August 1997

Electronic Journals for Chemistry

Stephen R. Heller
Beltsville, MD 20705


This presentation will describe what electronic journals in chemistry will be able to provide to the scientific community over and above their counterparts in print. With the growth of the Internet, electronic journals are often being hyped, both in positive and negative ways, beyond any reasonable degree of rational expectation.


Writing about an ill-defined, moving subject matter presents a challenge. In 1997, and for some time to come, we are not in a black or white situation, but in some grey area of scholarly publishing. At one end there is centuries old way of printed, peer-reviewed scholarly publishing. On the other end there is likely to be primarily the new all electronic, peer-reviewed scholarly publishing. (It seems best to refrain from labeling which one is white and which is black.)

As with all periods of transitions, there are the established organizations (e.g., publishers and librarians) and social mores (e.g., printed copyright law) which are often barriers for change and innovation. In an effort to keep power and control these organizations enthusiastically endorse and embrace this new technology and go about making the minimal changes that are acceptable.

A number of fundamental issues related to electronic publishing and electronic journals will discussed including the benefits of electronic journals, copyright, social, peer review, economics and pricing, archiving, infrastructure for electronic journals, where abstracting and indexing services belong in this new system, and an example of an electronic journal. Lastly, current efforts by both existing publishers and new endeavors in the area of electronic journals and electronic editions of print journals will be discussed.


A few hundred years ago after Gutenberg showed off the latest technology of the day - the printing press - much of the establishment (the church and the scribes and others) was up in arms (literally in those days) that anyone with suitable hardware could publish anything they wanted. Fast forward a few hundred years and there are commercial publishers who came and started to publish scholarly journals - much to the displeasure of the learned societies who found their monopoly quite satisfactory. In other words, "technological change always presents a problem for the owners of the old technology" (1). Today the learned societies and commercial publishers have found a way to co-exist and control the publishing of scholarly materials. Both have discovered the scholarly community is so "pure" that researchers are willing to pay for their own research, give the results away for free, and pay to read what they just gave away. When electronic publishing got to the point of being something print publishers could no longer ignore, they moved forward with aggressive timidness. Why upset this lovely applecart and have apples spilling out all over the place? Publishers began to create electronic editions of their print publications. Librarians, short of shelf space, fell in love with this new product, since it protected their "turf" by keeping them in the loop (authors, publishers, libraries, authors) so they can have "business as usual". To some this is not even a new product, but rather a hybrid product, in which printed pages are provided as images on a screen. For all practical purposes these electronic materials, besides containing nothing new or additional from their print counterparts, are being provided at an additional cost, with considerably more use restrictions, and with the added value of being able to get faster document delivery than in the past. In some cases hyperlinks to other scholarly publications made it much easier and faster for the reader to go to a related publication or reference. However the bottom line for the publishers was, and is, to not hurt their current revenue and profit stream. The title of an ACS publication "Will Science Publishing Perish" (2) speaks for itself and is an extreme example of a red herring, which was published by the ACS in 1996. What is perhaps most interesting about this ACS position paper is that its intellectual content comes from similar publications of the 15th and 16th centuries just after Gutenberg began to change the world. As Yogi Berra once said " It's Deja Vu all over again".

Electronic Journal Advantages

There is considerable value in and a number of advantages of electronic journals. These include:

1. Speed of publication is faster

2. There is no arbitrary limitation on the size of the manuscript

3. Color photos/diagrams don't cost any more than black & white

4. Multimedia (pictures, animation, sound) is possible

5. Complete data can be presented (e.g. spectral, chromatographic, gene sequencing)

6. 3-D structures can be presented and manipulated (rotation and other dynamic processes)

7. Computer programs can be included in the manuscript and the reader can enter and run their own data

8. Other literature can be hyperlinked, as well as having hyperlinks to scientific databases

9. Ability to add reviewer and reader comments

As Harry Collier has pointed out (3), while speed is not essential to manuscripts from historians and civil engineers, in some fast moving areas of science (e.g, genetic engineering, biochemistry) timeliness is critical to establish position in the field. Even for manuscripts which don't have a time factor, there is the benefit of being able to do and show more. Considering the egos of most authors, this should certainly be an attractive feature. Not having to worry about which color images to choose for a manuscript, but rather having to justify such images for their value and content should please authors. Being able to manipulate a 3-D structure for each individual reader to look at the information from their own perspective is both attractive to the author and the reader. The ease in which manuscripts can be reviewed, via reviewers looking at url's or e-mail, will speed up the review process. Lastly, not having to wait for enough manuscripts to "fill" an issue (there are no issues in an electronic publication - only articles), will allow manuscripts to be published one at time, as soon as they are read for release.

There are also non technical advantages to electronic journals. They include:

1. Lower cost to the reader

2. No time delays for delivery to the reader

3. Developing countries, for the first time, have (potentially) equal access


Commercial and society publishers need income to pay the costs of their operations. No one questions that, but some may question how much excess income is reasonable. Copyright is the way in which publishers are assured that they are able to recover their investment in the human and other resources needed to produce a scholarly journal. Copyright is the way in which they are able to control the desire of some to have free use of their investment. It used to be that the meek shall inherit the earth ...But the strong will retain the copyright. Now the meek can have it all and that worries the establishment. Besides the publishers, it worries the librarians, who realize that in an all electronic world one does not need to go to the library to get a journal or request an interlibrary loan. One can make a copy, or many copies, directly from an online source. While it will still take time to change, the Alice-in-Wonderland world of science journal publishing will change. In the real world, intelligent people, and I assume scholars are intelligent, don't give away the fruits of their intellectual work for free to someone who will sell it back to them (usually via their libraries) for a considerable sum of money. Certainly in the intellectual property area of written books and patents all authors receive royalties. The last time I read and searched the US Constitution, which wisely included section 8, clause 8 - "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;" I still could not find the word "publisher" in this section or elsewhere.

Social Issues

The social mores of today's scholarly environment require that one publish as often as possible in the most prestigious of journals. Certainly no one should begrudge a chemist who wishes to get a job, get a permanent job, or get a promotion. Today one gets "points" towards these goals by publishing in the highly visible, well thought of publications. A paper in Science or the Journal of the American Chemical Society (where I published my first paper in 1963) has helped more careers than a paper in the Freedonia Journal of Chemistry (4). Like the fear that publishing in a journal from a profit making company as opposed to a journal from a learned society would ruin one for life has been proven to be false, time will educate those who believe electronic journals are not socially acceptable. Like profit making vs non-profit making journal publishers, the issue is power and money, not the quality of scholarly information. The quality is determined, to a reasonable degree, by peer review.

The technology of the 20th century has been truly amazing. In less than 100 years travel, which had hardly changed in centuries (how much faster did a horse go in 1900 AD that in 900 BC? - or how much faster did a 19th century boat go compared to the Nina, the Pinta, or the Santa Maria?) has created jet lag. The human body and mind, as we know from archaeology and anthropology, has taken many centuries to change and evolve. The current system of scientific publishing has evolved over the past 2-3 centuries. Change will not come quickly or easily, as this change is mostly non-technical. First there is the matter of most people being happy with the existing structure of publishing. Even those who are unhappy can usually find a print publisher and start a new journal (but this is getting more difficult in recent years). Then there is the existing power structure (commercial and society publishers) who seem pleased with the current situation and not rushing off to undercut their generally lucrative revenues. Third there is the lack of computer literacy on the part of many scholars and the feeling that typing manuscripts is a clerical task.

While there will always be an establishment, there is always a group that is not satisfied with the establishment and who will want to change it. These creative people are just as necessary as the organizational custodians. Today there a number of experiments going on which will, sooner or later, change the scholarly publishing industry. How quickly this change will occur is a non-technical question. Robert Maxwell changed scientific publishing from a mainly scholarly society business to a commercial publishing business in a relatively short period of time - perhaps some 20 years. I wouldn't want to hazard a guess on when some of the big publishers will begin to fade away, but this is starting already. Experiments like the physics e-print service of Paul Ginsparg at Los Alamos (5) are already shaking the foundations of the physics publishing community. The chemistry community is considerably different, controlled to a significant extent by the ACS, Elsevier, and John Wiley. Also in chemistry there are more readers of journals than scientists who publish. In most of physics there is more of a balance in numbers between the two groups. The high-energy physics community had a culture in which pre-prints were routinely distributed in paper form, while this is not the case in chemistry. I have no doubt that in the coming years, as the new young chemists come into their own, change will begin in earnest.

Peer Review

The quality of scholarly publishing is usually the first (red herring) concern raised by publishers and scholars when it comes to discussing electronic journals, since self-publishing on the Internet is so easy. Clearly, peer review of a manuscript is important and valuable, and it is generally necessary to have some level of filtering and quality control of manuscripts. Peer reviewing of electronic manuscripts is no different than peer review of print papers. There is no reason to think or believe that peer review of electronic publications will be any better or worse than peer review is in print journals. After all, the peer reviewers are the same people! It is their minds and knowledge of the subject matter that should determine the quality of their review and analysis, not the medium in which it is presented. As long as there is some form of acceptable selection criteria (as opposed to self-publishing) the quality of electronic journals should be no different from that of print journals.

Related to peer review, in the area of quality, is the copy editing and related work of the publisher. To justify their labor intensive, and hence costly expense, publishers talk of the need to improve manuscripts with copy editors for style, and sometimes substance. What puzzles me is the need for this. If a few reviewers were able to read and understand the manuscript well enough to recommend it for publication, why can't the reader be expected to do the same, without the extra labor costs? I do realize that recent English major graduates from college do need to be gainfully employed, so as not to be a burden on the local welfare systems, but surely there are better things to do than copy edit a manuscript that will likely be read only by two reviewers, the author, and his or her mother. It is the lack of readership of most (>99%) of what is published that really scares publishers. How can they expect to recover their costs from a dozen papers in a journal which are important or useful enough to be read by a wide audience?

Economics and Pricing

Related to copyright is the issue of economics and pricing of electronic publications. Over the years print publishers have built up an impressive organization, which is very, very labor intensive. As labor costs have increased over the past 20-30 years in real money (taking into account inflation), technology and automation have been able in many industries, for the most part, to reduce costs, both in terms of real money and inflation. With staff costs rising, with printing, and mailing costs rising, journal prices have been rising. The current publishing management has taken the usual way to solving the problem of increasing costs - they increase prices. The downsizing, "re-engineering" and "reinventing" of organizations from industry throughout the world to the US Government does not seem to have yet reached the publishing industry. Entropy may not be what it used to be in most places, but in scholarly publishing it still is. Of course it is possible to go along for a long time on momentum. Take for example the following organizations or entities (some of which no longer even exist) which once were world class leaders - number one or two in their areas - until rather recently.

2. IBM
3. Wang Office Word Processors
4. New York Central Railroad
5. Pan American World Airways
6. Maxwell Communications Corporation
7. Apple Computers
8. The New York Herald Tribune
9. The Slide Rule

For further examples and details of these kinds, the reader is directed to the excellent book on business blind-spots by Gilad (6). In addition, there is an interesting article on the economics of electronic journals by Odlyzko (7) which discusses journal pricing in considerable detail.


One concern, associated with the current, very transitory, nature of the Internet, web sites, and url's, is the matter of long term accessibility of the information. If one often can't find an article a week after one first looked at it, why would one take a chance to publish in a new journal that may disappear off the face of the earth, never to be seen again. As Robert Burns wrote in Tim O'Shanter some 200 years ago,

"But pleasures are like poppies spread:
You seize the flow'r its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white-then melts for ever;
Or like the Borealis, race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow's lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm."

At least when a journal goes out of print, there are a few libraries with a copy which one can obtain by inter-library loan. In print, for better and worse, what is printed in the journal is fixed in time. Of course there are errata (which one never finds or reads), but at least no one changes things when there is new information, data, or a corrected value. While lawyers are having a field day, scaring people and making money raising concerns about this matter, it is, for the most part, another red herring. Proper authentication and annotation of records (being done today in the massive genome databases in molecular biology) is not a real problem. The physics e-print archives (5) allow authors to revise papers and resubmit them, giving different entry record numbers to each manuscript. Someday librarians/archivists and lawyers will learn to live with and love this new way of life.

The Publisher of the 21st Century

While electronic publishing will have mostly positive benefits overall to the chemical community, clearly there will be some losers as well as some winners. The organizations that either massively restructure themselves or those that are created with an understanding of how to prosper economically in the area of electronic publishing will survive and do well. As one can easily recognize, publishers have too much accumulated baggage to continue as they are currently doing for any substantial length of time. As Microsoft , Intel, Compaq, and Dell have shown IBM and DEC, David can defeat Goliath. The economic model for electronic chemistry and other scholarly journals will be different from that of the print journal. A much smaller and leaner operation will be the way to survive and prosper in the future. The enormous amount of paper handling (requiring people, mail rooms, trees, postage, fax machines, and so on) needs to be almost completely eliminated. In its place will be a small staff of computer literate people who act as routers. These people electronically move the flow of a manuscript from author to editor to reviewer to copy editor to web site. Office overhead, next to paper/printing and mailing, will be the major area for productivity improvements. Certainly it is easier to do this from the ground up with a new journal than it is to restructure an existing one.

One issue that is more difficult to solve in the electronic journal compared to a print journal is that of access and privacy. In print it impossible to know who is looking at or reading what articles. Journals out on the shelf or in the library stacks are generally directly accessible by the reader. However, when you go to access an electronic journal "big brother" is there watching everything you do. First you often needs a password just to access the journal. Then every page you look at is tracked by logging programs, usually built into the UNIX and other operating systems. When devising an acceptable infrastructure the new publishers of electronic journals will have to figure out ways to not be intrusive and respect privacy on one hand, and be sure that only eligible readers who have paid for their product access the information. Using IP addresses, which proves the computer from which the query is coming is eligible for access is one way which appears to work in general. However, with those organizations who have multiple locations (different campuses) or who have people who work at home, this solution does not work.

Abstracting and Indexing Services

There will be much less of a need for abstracting and indexing services in the future. Search engines, such as Yahoo! (8), Excite (9) Alta-Vista (10) are already acting as indexing services. In time they will improve, and/or be replaced by better tools. Even today, if the existing publishers were able to work together and coordinate their journal publishing activities and do even a meager amount of indexing (they already have the abstracts) they could take away a large and finite amount of business from Chemical Abstracts Service. However they seem to be unable to work together at present. The publishers have the journal articles months before they are published, they have the articles available on their web sites months before Chemical Abstracts Service can abstract and index the articles. Why do publishers wait and do nothing with this time sensitive and time critical information? Don't they want customer loyalty? Don't they want more of the customers money? Don't they realize that the end user chemist really can't cope with controlled vocabulary terms, which often become out-of-date quickly due to new discoveries and technological advances?

Example of the Future

As this manuscript is being prepared there is one chemistry journal that has been started (in mid-1997) with the principals and goals of electronic publishing which have been stated above. This is the Internet Journal of Chemistry (IJC) (11), which was presented at the 1996 Nimes conference (12). After a considerable period of discussion and development of the journal, a contract to produce the journal was signed in the spring of 1997. The first papers are to published in late 1997. The journal has the bare bones staff, using e-mail, the WWW, and part-time staff located around the world to produce the journal. Time will tell as to how successful the IJC will be.

Current Publisher Activities

Much has been written in the past few years about electronic publishing and the creation of digital libraries of all books and journals by both scholars and authors (13, 14). The vast majority of commercial and non-commercial publishers of scientific and technical journals have or are currently making essentially all of their print publications available in electronic form. This is all very nice and useful, but only to a very limited point. What the publishers are providing are not electronic publications, but rather electronic versions or electronic clones of their print products. None of the products they are providing are products developed specifically for electronic dissemination. The products are, for the most part, just a reworking or reformatting of their existing print products, with the added costs of electronic conversion and manipulation being added to price charged to the reader, and justified (in their minds) as adding value. There currently are some minor enhancements, such as Internet "hot links" to abstracts as the Journal of Molecular Biology has some links to Medline (15), and the CLIC project of the UK e-Lib program in the UK which adds some molecular structures and manipulation capability to already published print articles (16).

The reason for this lack of imagination and conservative approach is, in the opinion of the author, due to at least three factors. One is a lack of understanding of this new medium of information dissemination. The second (and a more important factor) is the concern of publishers as to how they can continue their current level of income in electronic publishing. The third and last factor is their need to try to convince their customers to continue to do business with them, even though publishers no longer serve the necessary or useful function in the electronic publishing age that they served in the print age. Publishers were needed to collect and distribute information. They have been replaced by the Internet, but they don't seem to realize it or want to accept this fact. If I was a publisher I probably would not want to either. As Aldous Huxley once remarked "facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored". In order to keep afloat and alive for as long as possible publishers are now linking their print and electronic products together, since scholars (in most fields) still need access to the existing and current print publications. I would expect that over the next few years, as new electronic publishers come into existence, with the baggage of print publishing, things will change. Slowly, one area of scholarly activity after another will move away from print into electronic publishing. The result will be a more efficient and less expensive (but not necessarily less profitable) scholarly literature in which there will be new winners (such as Intel has become in computers) and losers (like Wang, Control Data, Prime, Burroughs, Honeywell, and RCA were in computers).


It is hoped that this material has presented the electronic publishing forest, and not just a few trees. Besides the obvious fact that this is a new area, details of many of these topics require considerable space. Also, one does need to have something further to publish next year.


(1) P. Sirlin, The Economist, September 30, 1995

(2) "Will Science Publishing Perish? The Paradox of Contemporary Science Journals", ACS Publications, Washington DC, 1996.

(3) H. Collier, private communication, e-mail of May 9, 1997.

(4) My thanks to the Marx brothers in helping me keep this article politically correct by not having to use the name of a real country.

(5) E-print was initiated by P. Ginsparg, Los Alamos National Labs, in 1991. To view it, point your web browser at: Also see G. Taubes, "Networks - Publication by Electronic Mail takes Physics by Storm" Science, 259, (Feb. 26), 1246-1248 (1993).

(6) B. Gilad, "Business Blindspots", 2nd Edition, Infonortics, 1996

(7) A. M. Odlyzko, The economics of electronic journals. This article can be found at the url -





(12) Bachrach, S. M., Proceedings of the 1996 International Chemical Information Conference; Collier, H., Ed.; Infonortics; Calne, UK, 1996, 135-139.


(a)Olsen, J;, Electronic Journal Literature for Schlors; Mecklermedia; Westport, 1994.

(b) Borman, S., C&E News, March 27, 1995. The url for this article is:

(c) Heller, S. R.; J. Chem. Inf. Comp. Sci., 1996, 36, 205-213.

(d) Bolman, P.; Logos, 1996, 7, 86-92.

(e) Schatz, B. R.; Science, 1997, 275, 327-334.

(14) Development of Science Publishing in Europe; Ed. Meadows, A. J., Elsevier, Amsterdam, 1980.

(15) The Journal of Molecular Biology url is: /

(16) More information on the CLIC project can be found at the following urls: