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Online migration

Caxton's mark

Neal Marriot reflects on a period of historic transition for the Society's publishing activity.

Geoscientist 19.1 January 2009

For the Geological Society 2008 has been the first real year of transition from a world of scholarly communication dominated by print, to one where Fellows and institutions can for the first time access almost everything published by the Society online. The impact of the Lyell Collection has been profound, with extensive online use of our books and journals and the first real indications of a drop in demand for print. Our Fellows and customers, it seems, are more than ready to adapt to an environment of primarily digital communication.
Heave ho - making bibles used to be warm work. But is this migration to electronic publication really desirable? Why is the Society’s Publishing House investing so much time, effort and money to develop its online capability? (Print is, after all, a medium that has served scientists and communicators well for centuries.) And where do these quite radical changes in information delivery take us in the longer term?

It still comes as a surprise to many to discover that the principle driver is not financial. The processes (and, therefore, costs) by which an author’s raw manuscript is turned into a published paper are essentially similar regardless of whether eventual publication is in print or electronic form, and it is only in the final stages of production that the print and online workflows diverge. Indeed, while journals continue to be available in both print and electronic forms, the costs of online publication and hosting continue to be incurred in addition to those for print.

The real reason for the transition is that the process of scholarly communication is ideally suited to the richness and functional versatility available on the publishing platforms accessible via the Internet. Not only is content made obtainable as soon as it is published (and email alerts sent to subscribers), but the content itself is connected and linked in ways which are simply not possible in print. These links can be to internal components of a paper (reference lists, artwork or extensive supplementary datasets), to other journal content hosted anywhere in the world or to independent services such as EndNote, GoogleScholar or GeoRef. Modern content can also be linked to online archives of historical content, the recently launched Transaction of the Geological Society being an excellent example – rare, fragile and valuable content previously held in complete form in only a small number of specialist libraries is now available worldwide to anyone with online access. Browsing, searching and linking can reveal to the user ideas and information long since lost or forgotten in aging print collections.

Lovely plumage - sadly no longer economic In essence, the publication process seeks to add value to authored content in the ways which most suit the readers and users of information, and the electronic environment provides publishers for the first time a myriad of tools to enhance the scholar’s experience. It is published information which is of value – not its packaging, whether in print, microfiche or specific electronic form – and publishers are responding to these new opportunities with enthusiasm. If you are not already a regular user, just visit the Geological Society’s Lyell Collection ( and compare the tools available to you with the print volumes you receive by mail.

So the migration to online provision is part of an evolutionary process in scholarly communication – one where those best adapted to the consumer environments of libraries and laboratories will stand the best chances of survival in the long term. Astute authors, in particular, will choose to submit to those journals which are at the forefront of communications technologies, especially where speed-to-reader is paramount (the biosciences), where author peers show particular technological aptitude or enthusiasm (the high energy physics community) or where historical material may still retain significant value (the geosciences). And in the competitive library environment where journal titles are submitted annually to scrutiny and the possibility of subscription non-renewal, the reduced cost of usage arising from the ability of students and researchers to search for and access relevant online content without librarian assistance, and the space saving nature of online journal collections, conspire to favour electronically accessible resources.

What other incidental effects might there be from such changes? Certainly, there may eventually be some real cost savings as users opt to drop print and there will be environmental benefits of reduced physical circulation. But there may also be some unexpected downsides. We know, for example, that VAT regulations discriminate against predominantly electronic journals; a decline in print circulation may give the Society less physical presence than it had before; and electronic versions of journals may impact our ability to advertise new publications or insert promotional material. Indeed, the Society subsidises some of its publication costs by selling print advertising space to commercial organisations, and these revenue streams could eventually be threatened.

It is important, however, that the print tail is not allowed to wag the scholarly dog, and any secondary activities such as promotion of the Society and advertising activities will have to evolve in parallel to our published offering. Indeed, plans are already in development to spread the benefits of digital technologies to other aspects of the Society’s communication with the Earth science community. The key will be to tailor our message so that recipients receive only information well-matched to their interests and activities. It will be the end of the one-size-fits-all advertisement, promotion or message, and the start of more truly bespoke services for those who want them.

Fellows will have noticed that their most recent Fellowship renewal included the option to decline the print copy of their journal of choice. Forward plans anticipate that within a small number of years the majority of Fellows will be accessing Society publications electronically, though also recognise that while demand for print continues the presses will keep on rolling.

Only one thing is for certain – that the changes and opportunities afforded by the options to publish online and only just getting into their stride.