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A Scientist and the Web


What’s wrong with scholarly publishing? How it used to be

While waiting for feedback (and there’s a good discussion on Friendfeed) here’s a (probably rosy-tinted) ramble through history…

I started my research almost 50 years ago and did my doctorate in 2 years (required for chemistry as we had a fourth year of research in my first degree). During that I did several crystal structures (it was becoming slightly mechanised but I had to measure up to 50,000 diffraction intensities by eyeballing photographic films *and typing them up*. I created a thesis (which did not impress my (very famous) examiners and I am told I passed on the strength of my viva). That thesis is in the Bodleian and – thanks to Sally Rumsey should be being digitized RSN. You will then be able to judge its quality (it is really not too bad – and would now simply require corrections.

The process of publication was technically much harder. It took 2 days to create a picture of a crystal structure. It needed the coordinates creating with sine tables and worse. Then drawing with a Rapidograph. When I got it wrong I had to scrape the errors off with a razor. All data had to be punched up and included. I went straight into an assistant lectureship at the then new University of Stirling. Straightforward benevolent nepotism – I was invited to apply by my college tutor, Ronnie Bell, who took up the chair of chemistry. I was in the right place at the right time.

Anyway during my DPhil I published my first paper – a rather fun structure – in Chemical Communications. This was a new (and I felt exciting) journal where you wrote a brief account of the work and (at that stage, I think) were expected to write it up fully later (e.g. with the data). There was a feeling of competition – only interesting chemistry was accepted. Not sure I got much feedback. After getting to Stirling and recovering from the DPhil viva I wrote up the other structures and sent them off to J.Chem.Soc (the Chem Soc – now the RSC – had only one main journal (I think there was also Faraday Discussions) – but it was really a single national journal.

There was a clear feeling that you published in your national journal – UK=> JCS, Scandinavia=>Acta Chem Scand, US=>JACS, CH=>Helvetica Chimica, etc. If you had particularly specialist crystallographic material it was Acta Crystallographica (or possibly Zeitschrift fuer Kristallographie). In 1970 the world was very simple.

And then it changed. I remember in about 1972 getting a transfer of copyright form (I think from Acta Cryst, but it might have been JCS). I had no idea what it was. It was explained that this was to protect the authors from having their papers ripped off – that unless we gave copyright to the publisher they couldn’t act on our behalf.

At that stage we trusted publishers implicitly. Because they weren’t publishers. They were learned societies that we belonged to – paid membership to. That represented our interests because they were composed of us. Why would you not trust them?

Turning over our copyright was the biggest mistake that academia has made in the last 50 years. Because we handed over our soul. We didn’t even sell our soul – we gave it away. Was there an ulterior motive then? I’d like someone to tell me – I honestly don’t know whether it was a genuine idea or whether it was a con.

If we had the internet we would never have been ignorant of the issues. OKF or ORG etc. would have made it immediately clear that this was not necessary and could lead to disaster (as it has). But there was little communication – where do you look? The THES? No email, no blogs, no twitter…

And then – in about 1974 IIRC seeing Tetrahedron (or maybe Tetrahedron Letters) – a Pergamon Press journal. Pergamon was run by Robert Maxwell. It had an appealing visual quality – higher than the society journals. And it concentrated on one subject only – organic chemistry (whereas JCS and the other society journals had all subdisciplines of chemistry). It was irrelevant to me that it was commercial – I didn’t pay the bills and anyway universities had lots of money and could buy almost any journals they wanted. I’ve published in Tetrahedron and TetLetts. Why not?

And I remember going to Switzerland and when I go interesting and important results finding that the convention was to publish them in J. Am. Chem. Soc., not Helvetica. The first time that the choice of journal mattered. But that was because more people would read JACS than Helvetica. I didn’t feel any sense of choosing JACS because it was “better”, just that it would be better for my work.

The 1970s and 1980s had a strange step forwards and backwards – camera-ready copy. Not in most journals but in many monograph chapters. It was a quick, and I think honest, approach. We could say and draw roughly what we wanted as long as it kept within a square blue rectangle. You were responsible for your own diagrams and spelling. It wasn’t pretty but it was rapid (relatively).

And I was involved in setting up a new society (Molecular Graphics Society, 1981) which had its own journal. It was free to members. The society subsidized the journal. Throught membership. And yes, we made money out of meetings by charging fees for exhibitors. I was treasurer. We were financially viable.

And then the web came – 1993. I thought it would transform publishing. It was an opportunity for the universities to show what their publishing houses could do. It was an unparalleled opportunity for a new type of scholarship. I ran the first multimedia course on the Internet (Principles of Protein Structure). They were heady days. A few people believed – for me Birkbeck and Nottingham. But generally academia was totally disinterested in the new opportunities. Why? Please tell me.

They could and should have taken charge of scholarly publishing. Instead they let (and encouraged) commercial publisher to dictate to them what publishing was and was to become?

  • Who asked for PDF? Not me and no-one I have talked to.
  • Who asked for double-column PDF? Not me and no-one I have talked to.
  • Who asked for the “paper” to remain fossilized as a paper image?
  • Who asked for the printing bill to be transferred from the publisher to the department laserjet?
  • Who asked for manuscripts to be submitted through inhuman forms and grotesque procedures?

No-one. Academia has supinely accepted anything that the publishers have offered them. And paid whatever they have asked. (Yes, you may occasionally think you have saved money, but look at the publishers’ revenue – a monotonically increasing function (maths speak for something that increases year by year inexorably). In most industries innovation and scale have cut prices. …

…stop. I was meant to reminisce, not rant. I’ll fondly remember up to about 1990. Then it all goes wrong.


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