Scientific journals worldwide are going electric. As the rigor and precision of scientific communication meet the unruly culture of cyberspace, editors, publishers, and researchers seek new ways of reconciling important values

Online science journals: a net gain?

David I. Lewin

T he journalist and critic A.J. Liebling wrote that "freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."1 Today, anyone with a computer, a modem, and the price of an account with an Internet service provider can become a publisher, posting whatever he or she wants on the semi-anarchy of the World Wide Web, LISTSERVs, or discussion groups. This freedom produces unfiltered exchanges that contain much information, but also much misinformation; often observers without knowledge of the issues under debate have no easy way of distinguishing between the two. Scientific communication, however, assumes a basis of fact in the form of verifiable observations.

The clash of these cultures on the Internet can be messy. A typical brouhaha involves an Internet newsgroup on the molecular biology of human immunodeficiency virus,2 in which the battle between AIDS revisionists (who refuse to accept that HIV causes the disease) and a self-selected group of HIV researchers (who feel compelled to answer the critics for the sake of observers new to these issues) has drowned out discussion of research and research techniques. In light of such conflicts, how are the traditional publishers of scientific journals--magazines that live and die by strict rules of peer review--adapting to the "anything goes" nature of the Internet?

Different keystrokes for different folks

The Internet "has changed how scholars communicate," allowing "easier formation of communities," says Pat Molholt, assistant vice president of health sciences for scholarly resources at Columbia. But, at least so far, these technologies are having less impact on traditional scholarly publishing. Some peer-reviewed journals, such as Science (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.) and the Journal of Biological Chemistry, present their full text online, though only to subscribers. Others post only the table of contents and abstracts for each issue.

Although his journal has one of the most extensive Internet presences, Ellis Rubinstein, editor of Science, says: "We're still in the earliest stages of having an impact on our readers. If you look at this situation even five years from now, you will see a major impact" of the Internet on how scientific journals provide information to their readers.

That change is coming sooner in some fields than others. For some fields of physics, in particular, publication on the Web (by posting to the 7-year-old preprint library at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico3 for open public comment) has become a required prelude to publication in the journals. Only after the manuscript has received comment by others in the field, whose remarks are electronically associated with the original, do researchers in theoretical particle physics or related fields submit a "finished" manuscript to the printed physics journals. Even before the rise of the Internet, physicists would share their draft papers widely with trusted colleagues, a practice seen less often in biomedical research.

The biological sciences, in contrast, continue to insist on formal peer review by scientists selected for their knowledge of the particular area of research. Publication in a printed journal remains the primary way (besides meeting presentations) for one group of researchers to communicate its findings to the rest of the biological research community. This is especially true in clinical medicine, in which the publication of incorrect results can cost both money and lives through the continued use of worthless or even dangerous treatments, or through the overly rapid adoption of unproven new ones. In the peer-review model of scientific publishing, digesting the findings of research is generally more important than instant access, says Bill Silberg, editorial director for medical news and new media of the Journal of the American Medical Association in Chicago. Physicians have also been slower than basic scientists to use the Internet, he says.

The Internet will allow the peer-reviewed journals to extend their reach. Rubinstein notes that the accessibility of online versions of journals promises to increase readership among scientists in developing countries, who cannot afford the price of airmail subscriptions to the print editions. Science, he says, has negotiated an agreement with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to provide electronic access to the journal to Chinese scientists through the Academy's computer network. The Science editor also foresees journals repackaging their information for a variety of audiences, reaching allied professions and lay audiences by creating more hospitable access to the same information through the journal's Web site. At the same time, the journals will be able to add more in-depth information for specialized audiences, he says.

Does broader access have to mean laxness?

Although there is a great deal of medical information on the Internet, little of it is peer-reviewed. The Internet compresses time, Silberg notes, and widens access. When publishers put peer-reviewed research on the Internet, where it suddenly becomes available to a wider audience, journals face the question of providing the proper context for the findings, Silberg says. "With the arrival of the Internet, we've seen the growth of communities of interest [such as AIDS patient activist groups], some of which provide good information, but others do not," he says. To address this need for accurate medical information and proper context, the American Medical Association is bringing together collections of physician-reviewed content for patients and other groups.

Other editors are less concerned about the ease by which information--valid or invalid--can be posted on the Internet. "People say that there is no reasonable filter on information that appears on the Web, but I think that we are all sophisticated enough to detect people masquerading as clinicians," says Joseph Elia, editorial director of the New England Journal of Medicine in Boston. There are many advantages to supplying information via the Internet, he notes, "like speed and the creation of 'just-in-time' information services, through which you get exactly the information you need, when you need it--not when the publisher happens to have an article on offer that you might be interested in."

One thing is certain, says Molholt: "You have patients coming in to their doctors with more information, and who are coming in with questions about a particular treatment or test." In fact, Internet-savvy patients often hear of potential advances ahead of their physicians. "From the perspective of libraries, [the Internet] has both enhanced and complicated the world," says Molholt. The paper and electronic versions of the same journal appear different, she says, and accessing one journal online can be very different from accessing one from another publisher, since readers often need special software or access codes.

"More and more [information] is being published online," says Susan Jacobson, director of Columbia's Health Sciences Library. But libraries have been cautious in subscribing to online publications because of the additional cost over and above that of the print version of the same journals. "No print journals have been canceled so far" by Columbia because of their availability online, she notes.

"Nobody reads the articles online," Jacobson says. "They tend to download and print." This is of particular use to physicians, especially busy clinicians who do not have the time to go to the library. Such access is important to Karen Antman, M.D., director of Columbia's Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center and a member of the editorial board of the New England Journal of Medicine. MEDLINE, the biomedical abstract database of the National Library of Medicine, is particularly valuable online, she says. "MEDLINE is wonderful; you can download fairly abstruse topics at 2 in the morning if you have a patient with a problem. It makes everyone more efficient."

In Antman's own field, the study of a class of cancers called sarcomas, the Internet is helpful beyond the journals. "We go back to the original database [of clinical studies of sarcomas] quite frequently," she says. "One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that things can be done once, posted, and shared. It's going to make us more efficient, even in little ways." Libraries want to make access to an online version of a journal as broadly available as possible, even at the networked computer in the user's office.

New deals to reinvent wheels

This drive to provide information away from the library site presents potential problems for journals, as Science's Rubinstein, JAMA's Silberg, and others attest. First, there's paying for it. All traditional publishers, whether for-profit or non-profit, have a bottom line: They must at least break even, considering costs and revenues. Questions that have long been resolved for printed journals--advertising, subscriber base--have to be answered anew for online journals. "Everyone in the business I know is in the same boat," Silberg says. "Almost nobody is making money on the Web."

Journal publishers are still unsure how to price the online editions of their print journals. "We're among the few who have shown that people will pay for the online version," says Rubinstein. But the willingness to pay also means that university library expenses are rising, says Molholt. Publishers "are shifting the cost of publishing . . . to the university," she says.

In this atmosphere, it seems that everyone is negotiating deals. Libraries are seeking to get discounts by buying a package of online journals from a multi-title publisher or an information packager,Molholt says. Journals are trying to cross-license, to enable readers to jump from the references in one journal to the abstract (or, preferably, the full text) of the reference in another journal. "Within the biology publishing community, this effort is going extremely well," says Rubinstein, in part because many biology editors are using the same service (HighWire Press, a division of Stanford University) to place their journals online.

Some of the journals that are investigating how best to use the Internet to serve their readers are also reconsidering the nature of peer review. In a one-year project with the University of Sydney Library, the Medical Journal of Australia has been testing open, electronic peer review for selected papers. "We saw an opportunity to experiment with using the Internet to transform the methods of scholarly publication, as well as the medium," says Craig Bingham, the journal's communication development manager.

In April and May 1997, the journal posted the initial group of papers that had been already accepted for print publication on its Web site, together with the peer reviewers' comments. "[R]eaders were invited to give further comments" for a set period (two months), Bingham says. "If the authors wished, they could revise their paper further in response to readers' comments before the final version of the paper was published in print."4 The Australians are readying a follow-up study "in which all peer review will take place on the Internet," Bingham notes. "There is definitely the possibility that we can coordinate a better method of peer review with a more rapid path to publication by using the Internet, but the cultural changes involved in doing this are large, and much more difficult than the technological issues."

The printed scientific journal is not likely to disappear any time soon, all those interviewed agreed, but the Web is already changing the manner in which publishers operate. In the end, what the scientific community decides it needs will shape the nature of electronic journals, but the openness of online publication appears to be helping scientists better understand what they and the general public really need.

1. Liebling, "Do You Belong in Journalism?" New Yorker, May 14, 1960.

2., one of more than 80 newsgroups on molecular biology and related fields that were established as Bionet with support from the National Science Foundation, but that now exist with corporate sponsorship.

3.. Since the preprint archive's establishment in 1991 by Los Alamos particle theorist Paul Ginsparg, it has grown to include more than 30 fields and is funded jointly by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy .

4. In addition to information posted on the Medical Journal of Australia's site, the results of the online peer review trial have been published in: Bingham C. Peer review on the Internet: a better class of conversation. Lancet 1998; 351 Suppl 1: 10-14.

Related links...

  • EurekAlert list of peer-reviewed research journals

  • JSTOR archive of scholarly journals (largely social sciences, humanities, mathematics, etc.)

  • Science Service, non-profit scientific educational organization

  • 21stC's special issue "The Future of the Written Word," #3.2 (Spring 1998)

  • DAVID I. LEWIN is a free-lance journalist based in Silver Spring, Md., whose work has appeared in Omni, Psychology Today, the Journal of NIH Research, and Computers in Physics.

    Photo Credits:
    Illo: Howard R. Roberts