Electronic Publishing in Science - a View of a Scientist-Author

Anant B. Parekh

Keble College, University of Oxford, UK

Paper presented to the ICSU Press Workshop, Keble College, Oxford, UK, 31 March to 2 April 1998



When I was a graduate student a few years ago, the World Wide Web was still in its infancy and electronic publishing was essentially non-existent.   However, the last few years have seen tremendous advances in both the development and applications of the Web, and this has now heralded in a new communications revolution not just in Business but also in Academia. The Sciences in particular have benefited greatly from these recent advances.

The aim of this brief paper is to highlight, from a physiologists' point of view, the crucial role that is now played by electronic publishing in the biological sciences. It has now become readily apparent that those who simply ignore electronic publishing are placing themselves needlessly at a distinct disadvantage relative to their contemporaries.

It is not my purpose here to consider the financial implications of electronic publishing nor to dwell on the best way forward. Instead, what I shall endeavour to do is to describe the experiences of myself and my colleagues with electronic publishing.  

Impact of electronic publishing

As a Physiologist, I see five areas in which the Web has had a major impact in our work.

(i) Browsing through relevant journals

(ii) Ease of access to Journals

(iii) Competitive edge journals available quickly

(iv) Refereeing papers

(v) Inclusion of additional data

Ease of browsing through the massive number of journals

A few years ago, the number of journals a Physiologist would read were relatively small. They included basically:

Nature http://www.nature.com/
Science http://www.sciencemag.org/
Journal of Physiology http://physiology.cup.cam.ac.uk/
Journal of General Physiology http://www.jgp.org/
American Journal of Physiology (Cell Physiology) http://ajpcell.physiology.org/

Today, with an explosion in the number of journals published, as well as the tremendous pressure brought about by limited funding to publish, the number of specialised journals has more than tripled in the last 15 years. A conservative list for us would now include, besides the five listed above, the following additional titles:

European Journal of Physiology http://www.med-rz.uni-sb.de/med_fak/physiol2/trw/physiol/springer/preview.htm
Journal of Biological Chemistry http://www.jbc.org/
Journal of Cell Biology http://www.jcb.org/
EMBO Journal http://www.emboj.org/
Journal of Cell Science http://biomednet.com/library/jcs
Experimental Physiology http://www.cup.org/journals/jnlscat/eph/eph.html
Journal of  Neuroscience http://www.jneurosci.org/
Neuron http://www.neuron.org
Current Biology http://biomednet.com/gateways/cub
Cell http://www.cell.com/
Cell Calcium
FEBS, http://www.elsevier.nl:80/inca/publications/store/5/0/6/0/8/5/
Biophysical Journal http://www.biophysics.org/biophys/bjai.htm
Biochemical Journal http://www.portlandpress.co.uk/bj/
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences http://pnas.org/
and so on.

It has therefore become a monumental task to keep apace with the burgeoning literature. In fact, one needs at least several hours a week to carefully monitor the journals, especially since many are published on a weekly or fortnightly basis. Most libraries do not stock all the relevant journals anyway, so, one either has to send off for a reprint from the authors (can take months) or use an interlibrary loan service, which can also be slow. One can therefore easily miss a relevant paper in the field.

Also, with time constraints imposed by having to access the journals in a library only at certain times, one is less likely to read papers that might not be directly relevant to ones own work. This clearly leads to the current 'narrow view' that plagues much of contemporary research. Having a journal on the computer monitor affords one with ample time to pursue those papers that are interesting but not directly relevant. As any student of  the history of science will know, scientific problems that affect one discipline have often been found in another, and tackled from a different perspective.  

Ease of access to Journals

The above situation is further exacerbated by the fact that, for an empirical scientist, experiments and supervising the lab are done during the day. The best time when one can search the literature is therefore later on in the day, a time when most libraries are closed.

The ability to scan through the journals at ones leisure has made it possible to keep abreast of the literature. One can search a selected journal for only 20 minutes, without having to hike to the library. Also, one can search the web out-of-hours, or at home via a modem. rendering it extremely convenient as well as time-efficient. A further time-saving device is that one can directly print the relevant paper, without having to photocopy it.  

Competitive Edge

Many journals take an inordinate amount of time to arrive in the library, especially if they come from across the Atlantic. For example, in our departmental library, the March issue of more than 4 popular journals have not even arrived yet. This problem is circumvented by electronic publishing on the web. Not only can the journal be accessed as soon as it is complete, but future editions can be read. In many cases, the entire contents of the next issue can be accessed, and the Abstracts for the several subsequent issues can be looked at. This remarkable property of electronic publishing not only provides researchers with immediate access to the latest publications, but it is unique to the Web. Medline and Winspirs (CD-Roms containing journal archives) are usually 3 months behind.  

Refereeing process

As a referee for a variety of journals, I find it invaluable to have previous work from the authors lab at hand. This is because most papers build on previous work, and it is necessary to be sure that they are not merely own previous work (a condemnable process we dub "paper collecting"). Often a key control experiment has not been carried in the paper under review, but the referee is instead referred to a previous publication in which the control was apparently done. Often it has not been done to the necessary extent. These latter publications are often in obscure journals, which one would normally not look out for. Few reviewers have the time or inclination to spend a morning chasing up such papers, and one cannot help but feel that the reviewing process is perhaps not as rigorous as it might be. This will clearly have deleterious consequences for the entire field. Electronic publishing circumvents this problem, since one would be able to download the entire paper quickly, and check whether the citations are indeed appropriate.

A further advantage with electronic publishing is that we can rigorously examine the hard data. It is extremely difficult to appraise hard data when they are only slightly larger than a postage stamp in a hardcopy journal. Electronic publishing enables us to expand the graphics of down-loaded journals and focus on specific details. That way, we can be more convinced of the data, or reject it altogether.  

Inclusion of additional data

Because of space constraints in hardcopy journals, many authors arbitrarily decide which sets of data they will show and which they will refer to as "data not shown". Often, the data not shown reflects important control experiments, and the overall conclusions drawn hinge on this data.

It would therefore be of tremendous benefit to be able to see this sort of data, in order to assess whether the conclusions drawn are justified. Using electronic publishing, many journals are now encouraging authors to include additional data which can be downloaded from the web. Although not part of  the official manuscript which appears in library copies, the data is included in an appendix which can be accessed via the web. For example, Current Biology now has a series of additional data associated with papers which enable the authors to strengthen their work by including the results of further experiments. This reflects a major step forward in scientific research.


Some concerns with electronic publishing

Although electronic publishing has numerous advantages, there are certain drawbacks that need to be considered.

(i) One drawback with future issues of a journal being available on the Web is that it raises the ugly prospect of premature publication. It remains to be seen whether a certain type of scientist, on seeing an Abstract in a future issue describing the research on which he/she is embarked upon, will hurriedly churn out an incomplete piece of work in order to salvage something.

(ii) Stringent safety mechanisms need to be installed to prevent people from somehow interfering with the web sites. The possibility is there that data can be manipulated even after publication, and conclusions/text altered. In addition, with no control over what appears on the web, people may post their own website and claim it is some kind of scientific journal. Poor quality manuscripts and even non-refereed ones might appear and subsequently be quoted by unsuspecting researchers.


Future directions - online correspondence

I would like to see journals providing a section on their web site for scientific correspondence. This would provide a forum for researchers to comment on recently published papers in that particular journal. The authors would be able to respond, and this would occur shortly after the paper has appeared. Not only would this ensure that papers of high quality and extensive detail are published, but the short delay between publication and discussion would ensure that the work is still fresh in people's minds, this is one of the problems with hardcopy copies, where scientific correspondence operates several months after the original paper has appeared.

Last updated : 06 July 1998
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