US: Switch to online journals under attack

A trend to make printed scientific journals available online worldwide, is under fire. Although President Obama has signed a measure to make the National Institutes of Health Public Access Policy permanent, some US lawmakers have launched legislation to roll back the effort.

While advocates assert moving science journals online is tech-savvy, economical and the only proper use of taxpayer-generated research, problems with costs, archiving, copyright, and support of small professional organisations (centred on their journal identity and research collaboration) are causing second thoughts.

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, or SPARC, has advocated the switch to electronic journals to make biomedical research available to users, including third-world countries that cannot afford the rising costs of journals.

SPARC Japan, a project of Japan's National Institute of Informatics and SPARC Europe, an alliance of European research libraries and institutions, are also pushing conversion from paper to electronic. The NIH Public Access Policy was considered a model provision, requiring that all NIH-sponsored research be published online and accessible to all on the internet.

But in spite of the cost of printed biomedical publications doubling in 10 years, online publications are not a free alternative. As the NIH Library admits: "Online publications may in time be cheaper to produce but they are not cheaper now."

One solution championed by SPARC is to load the cost of publication into the big grant applications submitted to national granting agencies. But the focus on biomedical research and literature that does not date back before the 1950s' Watson and Crick description of DNA ignores the fact that much science research is supported out-of-pocket by researchers themselves, as well as by small professional associations and departments that cannot underwrite online page charges.

Another emerging problem is archiving. Research published in October 2002 in Science described how 10% of online journal citations could no longer be located after 15 months, a problem that persists. Printed journals are dispersed in libraries worldwide and can be secured via interlibrary loan even when the journal is no longer produced.

The loss of an online website, on the other hand, means the complete disappearance of that research. Some researchers are justly concerned that their research could disappear in a few years because over long time periods most journals do become 'extinct'.

Portico, a digital preservation and electronic archiving service, aspires to archive publications for publishers for a fee, and the licence provides for not only archiving but also migrating the journal to new software and hardware formats.

Unlike acid-free articles on paper that has a lifetime of 200-500 years, electronic information must be migrated to new platforms and formats each time the technology changes, usually in a decade. But access to the Portico archives by libraries does not equal the inter-library loan systems nor is there any monetary support for migrating non-paying extinct publications.

The debate is more than philosophical for the science of systematics. Classification of animals and plants requires access to descriptions that may be centuries old and new descriptions must be available to future researchers. A proposal to allow online 'publication' in the next edition of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature hinges on the permanence of archiving the journals in a manner that is always accessible, and time is running out.