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NLM Proposes New Journal Standards
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Posted On June 23, 2003
The National Library of Medicine (NLM) has announced a new set of standards for publishing online journal articles. The Journal Archiving and Interchange Document Type Definition (JAIDTD) is freely available for public use and creates a standard that, if broadly adopted, could signal a significant sea change in the future of scholarly journals.

Since the mid-'90s, scholarly journals have been striving to make their content available on the Web for greater distribution, ease of searching and retrieval, or just to have a Web presence. "These electronic files are created to meet the needs of the Internet—usually without much thought given to long-term archiving of the content," says David Lipman, director of the Library's National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). "Today we release two Document Type Definitions (DTDs) that will simplify journal publishing and increase the accuracy of the archiving and exchange of scholarly journal articles."

To put this in context, the JAIDTD could be to journals what HTML was to the Web. The Journal Archiving and Interchange DTD Suite provides a set of XML modules that define elements and attributes for describing the textual and graphical content of journal articles, as well as some non-article material, such as letters, editorials, and book and product reviews.

"We didn't start out to create a standardized archiving format for articles," says NCBI's Jeff Beck. "We were starting a major revision to our DTD at the same time that a company—Inera, Inc., of Newton, Mass.—was working on the 'E-Journal Archival DTD Feasibility Study' for the Harvard University E-Journal Archiving Project. That study concluded that a common format for archiving was possible, but that it hadn't been defined yet. We shared our revised DTD with Inera, and it seemed like we almost had it."

The new DTD and the Tagset are in XML and they are in the public domain. Complete information and documentation can be found at http://dtd.nlm.nih.gov.

Of course no one knows how readily the publishing community will accept the JAIDTD. The NLM will naturally be encouraging journals that submit to PubMed Central (http://www.pubmed.org) to use the JAIDTD. But while the JAIDTD has been created for PubMed Central, and NCBI will manage the updates, adherence to the JAIDTD is not mandatory, as journals may have already established their own XML models.

In the proverbial best-case scenario, the journals not yet committed to an XML standard will embrace JAIDTD and its promise of a brand new (and better) day of publishing, transferring, and archiving journals. Sister disciplines will see the advantages of JAIDTD for their journals and proceed to adopt it themselves. This, in turn, will cause a snowball effect, and journals throughout the lands and the disciplines will take up the standard. For this to happen, there must be a considerable effort to promote JAIDTD so that journals do not become too deeply entrenched in their own ways of doing things.

To date, no other organization has offered up an XML standard for journals and one hopes that there are not a multitude of such standards under development. In theory, at least, such a standard for journals would not really have a vast range of differences from journal to journal. But commercial publishers have a long history of creating their own ways of doing things with the notion of "sharing" perhaps not first and foremost on their agendas.

But, of course, there is the possibility of a less positive outcome. Like PubMed Central, JAIDTD could be a really good idea that doesn't get much traction. While not exactly fallow, with just over 100 journals in PubMed Central, this represents only a small fraction of the thousands of journal titles in the biomedical sciences. Hopefully other standard-setting organizations will take a good long look at this new proposed standard and will elect to partner with NLM to make it a standard that matters.


Robin Peek was an associate professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College. She also wrote a monthly column called Focus on Publishing for Information Today.


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