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Industry prepares for the future

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As we begin 2005 there are many opportunities and uncertainties for the industry. Sian Harris visited Online Information 2004 to discover what the years ahead hold

Every December companies and groups involved in the electronic distribution of information converge in London, UK, and meet the people who purchase and use this information. And at this year's Online Information show the presence of the STM publishing industry appeared to overshadow all other applications.

'The natural way to get science information is online,' commented Allen Powell, vice-president and division general manager for EBSCO Information Services. He said electronic packages - including purchases of combined print and electronic packages, online-only packages and databases - currently account for around 45 per cent of overall sales and the company expects it to exceed 50 per cent soon.

However, although this is a substantial difference from the state of the industry before the advent of the internet, the predictions of print subscriptions disappearing have yet to come true. So why do around half of customers still prefer to receive just print journals? The main reason, according to Powell, is archiving. While electronic-only packages are cheaper so put less pressure on cash-strapped librarians, they do not come with the same guarantee of permanence. 'Customers are uncomfortable about just leasing information. Librarians see themselves as repositories of information and have a responsibility to keep collections going,' he explained.

Access to journal archives depends on the nature of the licence deal agreed with the publisher, and also on the publisher remaining in existence. Furthermore, many electronic products do not yet extend back to the launch of a journal or database.

But this backfile issue is starting to change. Many of the product announcements at Online Information referred to extending electronic archives further back in time, with the eventual aim of digitising everything.

Meanwhile, the trend towards free, online access could add a complication to the archiving issue. Many publishers are starting to permit material to be displayed on personal websites or submitted to institutional repositories and funding body archives.

While strongly encouraged by government enquiries and industry regulators, this trend could lead to confusion. The terms under which material can be self-archived differ from publisher to publisher, so material available can range from raw research results, through preprints, to the final versions that have passed the peer review and editing processes of a journal. The publisher arrangements also restrict how soon these repository versions can be accessed after the official publication date. Thus, there could be several different versions of the same article available at different times, with little way for a search tool to compare their validity.

There is also no guarantee of completeness in this process. With self-archiving, the onus is on individual researchers to submit their material to their websites or repositories, but there is often no obvious incentive for them to do so. According to the chief executive of The Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), Sally Morris, about 90 per cent of publishers permit self-archiving but very few authors do it. 'There is not very much content in institutional repositories yet, and a lot of what does go in is not journal articles at all,' she said.

There is also considerable uncertainty about the success of the full open-access model, where everything is free to view and authors pay to publish their work. John Haynes, the head of journals business development at Institute of Physics Publishing, which launched the open-access journal New Journal of Physics in conjunction with Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft back in 1998, told delegates how some referees had initially refused to provide peer review services to the journal because they disagreed with the author-pays model. And the journal itself, despite having attracted high-profile authors and gained good impact factors, is not predicted to recoup its investment until some 20 years after launch.

Rosella Proscia, of secondary publisher Ovid Technologies, believes bibliographic databases will play a major role in the success or otherwise of open-access journals. 'We are helping it by our linking,' she explained. However, this in itself can be a challenge. The formats that open-access journals appear in are very variable, so it can be hard to represent the papers in a way that means they can be searched. 'The challenge is to raise the standard to the same level throughout the industry,' she added.

And, in this area of searching, traditional database companies face their own challenges. Last November Google sent shock waves through the research information community when it released a beta test version of Google Scholar, a search tool designed specifically for retrieving journal articles and other scholarly resources. Google's interest in the industry is obvious but its effects, like those of so many trends in evidence at the show, remain to be seen.