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April 29, 2005

The Institute of Physics’s deal with Jisc to give all UK institutions free access to a digital archive of all its back issues has, it seems, pleased everyone, reports Chris Johnston

Searching for journal articles can be time-consuming and frustrating. Almost every researcher knows only too well the hassle of scouring dusty shelves in search of a particular volume or waiting while a librarian disappears into the bowels of the library to retrieve an article.

The advent of electronic publishing on CD and on the internet has made researching journal articles immeasurably easier in fields where recently published work is most heavily used, but researchers in areas in which knowledge changes less quickly are still tethered to the printed word.

That is about to change as a number of publishers embark on ambitious digitisation projects. One is the Institute of Physics, which has been publishing journals since 1874. In 2002, it took an expensive gamble to spend £600,000 on digitising its entire stock of back issues.

Jerry Cowhig, managing director of the IoP, says it is not certain whether the demand for the information will repay the investment. But the IoP’s status as a learned society means it is obliged to make the information more widely available to academics around the world. He also hopes that libraries that already subscribe to its journals might be interested in getting access to the older material. “We felt this was the appropriate thing to do,” he says.

The pages of journals have been converted into files that allow users to search for any term across the archive, and references are linked in the way that readers have come to expect from viewing recent articles on the web.

The archive includes more than 110,000 articles and more than 1.5 million pages of physics research from some of the most eminent names in the field, including Sir John Fleming, Niels Bohr and Sir Ernest Rutherford - and some of the most significant breakthroughs.

In 1903, The Proceedings of the Physical Society of London published Rutherford’s writings on the essential features of the physics of radioactivity, for which he won the Nobel prize for chemistry five years later. More recently, Nobel laureates, including Sir Harry Kroto, Herbert Kroemer and Vitaly Ginzburg, have had papers published in various IoP journals.

Since the IoP completed the project two years ago, it has sold subscriptions for the entire archive to some 1,000 customers worldwide, among them individual universities and library consortia that include a large number of institutions, a few of which are in Britain. But earlier this year, the institute struck a deal with the Joint Information Systems Committee to provide all higher and further education institutions in the country with free access to the UK’s biggest archive of physics research.

Cowhig says the IoP was keen to strike a national arrangement. “We have similar deals in other places, but this is the best one anywhere in the world because it covers the entire country. The institute is a British-based institution, and we think it is essential that this information be available to British scientists.”

Under the Jisc deal, academics are also allowed to use excerpts from the IoP archive in their teaching and learning materials, says Liam Earney, the committee’s collections manager. He estimates that the deal has already saved institutions more than £2 million and given them a number of other benefits.

“Online access to digital archives provides students and academics with the opportunity to search and mine information in a way that is not possible in the physical world,” Earney says. “The agreement also means students can engage with primary research materials in a way that would not otherwise be possible.”

Manchester University subscribed to the IoP journal archive before the deal with Jisc was negotiated. Diana Leitch, its deputy librarian, says there are considerable benefits in having historical material available online.

“There is a seamless approach through the years to the issues and volumes for a particular title - the user does not need to stop at a certain date and make a trek to the library to find the printed copy of an earlier volume. This makes much better use of researchers’ time and effort,” she explains. It also frees library space for other activities because journals can be stored remotely.
Manchester is a strong advocate of electronic journals, and the current and back issues of some 2,500 titles are available to staff and students.

Leitch says: “I know from our statistics and user comments that people greatly appreciate having access to the older journals online as well as the more recent ones. Our electronic journals are now being used between three and four times as much as when the journals were available in print format only.”

The Jisc deal - the second of its kind after one with the Royal Society of Chemistry - meant that institutions such as Manchester that had already subscribed had their payment refunded. Little wonder, then, that Leitch is a wholehearted supporter of the organisation’s efforts to negotiate such arrangements for the sector.

She also points out that electronic journals are accessible when libraries are closed, extending opening hours in a cost-effective way. When remote access is provided, distance and disabled learners can also search the database.

The IoP deal seems certain not to be the last negotiated by Jisc for the sector and is another step towards consigning photocopies of dusty, yellowed bound volumes to history.

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