E-journals revolution threatens publishers

April 9, 1999

The increasing availability of scholarly e-journals is the beginning of a "revolution" in the communication of research that could ultimately destroy the dominant role of commercial publishers, according to Fred Friend, director of scholarly communication at University College London, writes Kam Patel.

Mr Friend said publication of scholarly journals in electronic format, despite its relatively low volume compared with print versions, is now happening to an extent "that would have seemed miraculous a generation ago ... it is an indication of the speed of change that simply converting text from print to electronic format no longer seems wonderful".

But with formats destined to become increasingly sophisticated through addition of graphics, sound and moving images, and provision of links to other websites, one of the long-term impacts over the medium term could be articles no longer being grouped in journals.

"The article will be complete in itself without needing to look towards completion in the form of a journal issue," Mr Friend said.

Funding body pressure for "quick results" through the research assessment exercise may undermine traditional monthly or quarterly patterns for academic journal issues.

If the article rather than the journal becomes the primary form of scholarly communication, it could have a big impact on the organisational structure within which it takes place.

"The structure depends on articles being grouped into journals. But if publication of the article is immediate, without the need to wait for a complete issue, what value does the publisher add to the publication?" he said.

Even the traditional refereeing process for papers could be very different. "The technology will allow much more direct contact between referee and author, with more flexibility in changing an article before publication."

Such developments could severely curtail the dominance of commercial publishers.

"Many academics realise that the benefit of commercial involvement in scholarly publishing has been bought at a very heavy price. The lack of academic control over the price for journals has enabled commercial publishers to make large profits," Mr Friend said.

Some academics are too resigned to publishers' power. But Mr Friend believes that "if the academic community puts its weight behind the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, then, as the main producers and users of scholarly publications, we can have a powerful effect on the future."

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