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‘Digital-Only’ Confusion in Scholarly Publishing: American Chemical Society
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Posted On July 23, 2009


What happens if (or when) scholarly publishing reaches the tipping point of going "digital-only"? For years, scholarly publishers have been creating digital copies of their publications. The open access movement has pushed many of those publications into wider availability than scholarly publishers might find comfortable. However, in this current economic climate, some publishers have moved toward digital-only versions of publications. What does this mean for librarians licensing the publications? Can they expect-or demand-that publishers pass through the cost savings of eliminating print? Confusion reigns. A story from the Chronicle of Higher Education's Wired Campus Newsletter about the American Chemical Society (ACS; www.acs.org) going all digital turned out to be somewhat inaccurate.

The ACS has been an historical leader among sci-tech and scholarly society publishers when it comes to all things online. Chemical Abstracts was one of the first major sci-tech abstract and indexing databases to go machine-readable about 50 years ago. All ACS' journals are available online either in a current edition dating back to 1996 or in the ACS Legacy Archive covering 1879-1995. When it comes to scholarly society publishing, ACS has often led the way.

On July 10, a news item by Josh Fischman titled "Chemistry Journals Go Digital-Only" was posted on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Wired Campus Newsletter. The piece relied on information published in Nature ("Chemistry Publisher in Move From Print Journals," Vol. 459, pp. 1045, June 24, 2009, doi:10.1038/4591045, http://tinyurl.com/llae53) and a story in Ars Technica posted on July 6, 2009 ("Science Moves From the Stacks to the Web; Print Too Pricey," http://arstechnica.com/web/news/2009/07/academic-publisher-reportedly-going-online-only.ars). However, a lengthy July 17 announcement from the ACS itself (http://pubs.acs.org/page/press-release/publication-changes.html) clarified its policy of continuing support for print. Fischman posted another story that served as something of a parenthetical correction to the original piece ("Chemistry Society Cuts Libraries a Break on Digital Journal Prices").

ACS' Publications Division publishes 36 peer-reviewed journals and an industry magazine, Chemical & Engineering News. All of them are available in electronic form as ACS Web Editions. None of them will be going all digital. The three leading circulation titles-Journal of the American Chemical Society, Chemical Reviews, Accounts of Chemical Research-and Chemical & Engineering News will remain in the print format. However, most of their journals will appear in a condensed, rotated format, using the "landscape" 2-pages-on-one format. Matthew Price, director of marketing and library relations, told me that the overall size of each journal issue would not change. So the readability of the articles might suffer, particularly for older readers whom Price refers to as "digital immigrants." Younger members, whom Price defines as anyone younger than 35, are "digital natives," who definitely feel more comfortable with digital copies. Subscribers to ACS Web Editions can download PDF images of articles and print them out themselves as permitted by the license, according to Price. The ACS announcement defended the reduced print size as similar to the option users choose when printing from PDF formats.

Studies have shown that more and more users now prefer the digital mode. In fact, Price says next year, ACS will launch two "born digital" titles never to be found in print-Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters and ACS Chemical Neuroscience. ACS has also begun virtual issues, which are collections of articles on a topic from the Journal of the American Chemical Society available free due to sponsorship: JACS Selects requires a subscription, according to Price. The overall JACS beta site demonstrates new experiments ACS is making with its journals. When asked whether these included Web 2.0 features, Price boasted, "We're already working on Web 3.0."

After 2 years of research and planning, the ACS upgraded its web platform last November when it moved the platform on to Atypon Systems with extensive customization. Since that time, Price reports ACS has seen a marked increase in usage. At this point, Price says, "the expense of print greatly exceeds what we are charging. However, our investment in the digital infrastructure, in digital publishing, is a huge investment, but we did not add the cost of the new platform onto our subscription costs. Because we are a non-profit, we re-invest into the society and its publishing operations. It's a continual investment in upgrading and improving our systems. We've been rolling out new functionalities since November."

In summary, Brandon Nordin, ACS Publications' vice president of sales, marketing, and web innovation, stated, "Most institutions find their users prefer the easily searched, 24/7-accessible, and quickly accessed Web editions of journals. Librarians are further attracted to the more attractive pricing and low cost per use of ACS Web Editions. ACS will continue to monitor both readers' views and library customers' purchase patterns to determine its future product media and formats. But for today, and throughout 2010, online access and print subscriptions both remain options for ACS customers to select based on their own preferences. Unfortunately this move has been misinterpreted in several blogs-and subsequently picked up in mainstream media outlets-and then erroneously reported as a complete end to ACS print-based journal distribution. Such assertions are incorrect."


Barbara Quint is contributing editor for NewsBreaks, senior editor of Online Searcher, and a columnist for Information Today.

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