Shoveling Sand with a Teaspoon: Managing Electronic Journals
By Jonathan Lord
Jonathan Lord is Assistant Director for Collection Development at the University of Virginia Health Sciences Library (JML4S@Virginia.edu). This article is based on a paper presented at the Mid-Atlantic Chapter/Medical Library Association's Annual Meeting in Wilmington, North Carolina, October 1999.
I grew up not far from the ocean, and since moving to the mountains of Virginia, I sometimes miss the shoreline. As a child, I spent many a summer's day on the beach making sand castles, a favorite activity of mine. Aside from getting a few nasty sunburns, my childhood beach experiences taught me about the constantly changing nature of the sandy beach. No matter how many holes I dug, or how elaborate a castle I built, the ocean surf would gradually reclaim the beach, leaving little trace my labors. My experiences with electronic journals this past year have at times reminded me of building sandcastles on the beach.
In the past decade, wave after wave of new technologies have brought unprecedented change to libraries, and librarians have had to reinvent themselves in response to this change. The transition from paper to electronic collections in libraries has been extensively discussed in the library literature in recent years. Present day electronic journals can trace their history to past state-of-the-art technologies such as microfiche, microfilm, and CD-ROMs.
In the early 1990s, the groundbreaking pre-Internet electronic journals were often looked upon as novelties, and not serious replacements for the traditional print copies. These early publications were often hampered by technical limitations. They were accessed from stand-alone installations within the library, or through local-area networks, slow dial-up services, and pre-World Wide Web versions of the Internet. Many required knowledge of cryptic search commands to be able to browse the contents. They made picking up a print copy and flipping through its pages a pleasant alternative to the electronic journal.
The first electronic-only journals were also started at this time. In 1992, OCLC introduced The Online Journal of Current Clinical Trials. A bold concept at the time, this journal had no print counterpart, and promised rapid publication of important advances in medical research. Early online journals lacked a standardized user-interface, often using software customized to fit the needs of each individual journal. Online journals eliminated the time required to produce and distribute CD-ROMs, providing more up-to-date information, but the limited telecommunications infrastructure made wide access difficult. Another key problem with OCLC's pioneering journal was persuading authors to submit articles for publication in a non-print journal format.
Today, libraries are experiencing a "new wave" of electronic journal publishing. Statistics published by the Association of Research Libraries (http://arl.cni.org) reveal that the number of web-based electronic journals increased from about 300 in 1995 to over 3000 in 19971, a dizzying rate of increase that even exceeds the skyrocketing cost of journal subscriptions. The present flood of electronic journals is the result of a number recent technologic advances which have dramatically changed the direction of scholarly publishing.
In his review of the evolution of electronic journals, John Barnes writes: "The emergence of the World Wide Web has greatly reduced the entry barriers to electronic publications by providing a ubiquitous real-time distribution channel and eliminating the need to develop and distribute proprietary access systems. While most electronic publishing is still about 'putting paper on the screen,' new dynamic data formats such as Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), Portable Document Format (PDF), Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML), and others are providing new cost-effective means to 'liven' online journal information through color, graphics, document linking, video, and simulation."2
With the availability of the World Wide Web on nearly every desktop, electronic journals are becoming the preferred information format for a growing number of healthcare clinicians and researchers. Today's electronic journals are the fulfillment of what many health care professionals have been dreaming of for years: instantaneous access to medical literature at the point of need. Examination of the literature published about Grateful Med and other end-user MEDLINE search systems reveals a common thread. While the ability to do one's own literature research was welcomed, many involved in these studies said that what they really needed was access to the full articles, and not just a MEDLINE citation and abstract.3 Electronic journals linked directly from MEDLINE citations have the ability to answer this need, providing HTML versions of the paper original, or PDF documents which preserve the more soothing look and feel of the original publication.
As librarians were in the forefront of introducing health care professionals to the mysteries and joys of MEDLINE searching, I think we also have an opportunity to be proactive agents of change in the transition from print to electronic journals. We presently grapple with issues of selection, access, and cost of electronic journals, trying not to be overwhelmed by the sea of change occurring in the publishing industry. In the future, we can play an important role in understanding the information needs of the information consumer, then selecting and designing electronic resources that best meet those needs. New initiatives such as BioMed Central (http://www.biomedcentral.com) will forge different relationships between researcher-authors, publishers, and librarians. There is a good possibility that information consumers in the future will have the ability to create their own customized e-journals, based on their own interests and needs. There is little doubt that the new millennium will bring even bigger waves of change for libraries and librarians. Instead of being washed out to sea by the tides of change, let's grab our surfboards and ride those waves into an exciting future!
- Mogge, D. 1997. Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters and Academic Discussion Lists. 7th ed. Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries, Office of Scholarly Communication.
- Barnes, J. H. 1997. One giant leap, one small step: continuing the migration to electronic journals (Resource sharing in a changing environment). Library Trends 45 (3): 404-15. Quote is from p. 405.
- Burnham J. F., and M. Perry. 1996. Promotion of health information access via Grateful Med and Loansome Doc: why isn't it working? Bulletin of the Medical Library Association 84 (4): 498-506.