APS News

No Slowdown Foreseen in Rapid Growth of APS Journals

Journals Graph The number of manuscript submissions to APS journals is increasing at about eight percent per year. This rapid growth is expected to continue over the next five years, concluded an APS task force after conducting a 10 month study of the issue. Virtually all the growth is from submissions from outside the United States [See APS Views, APS News, Aug./Sept. 1994 and Article on page 3, APS News, Oct. 1994]. The task force report, presented to the APS Executive Board in February, included recommendations for accommodating future expansion and electronic publishing, as well as for limiting growth without compromising the excellence of the journals.

"Our journals are very successful, and this success is cause for pride and satisfaction," said Eugen Merzbacher (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), who chaired the task force and served as APS President in 1990. "But uncontrolled growth has the potential to imperil the quality of the publications, as well as the fiscal stability of the Society." For example, over the same period, subscription prices for APS's, AIP's and other scientific journals have doubled, and in some cases tripled, in large part to accommodate the increase in size of the journals.

The task force was appointed in March 1994 by then-APS President Burton Richter (Stanford Linear Accelerator Center), and charged with examining the growth over the last decade in manuscript submissions to Physical Review and Physical Review Letters (PRL), mainly from foreign authors; to attempt to forecast submission trends for the next five to 10 years; and to suggest possible actions for the APS to deal with problems caused by such extraordinary growth. To carry out the charge, it conducted a quantitative study on the growth of physics journals, a survey of foreign authors, and a quality study of several sample issues of the 1993 Physical Review.

Based on the results of the first study, the task force found that during the 1987 to 1993 period, the number of manuscripts published by U.S. authors did not change appreciably, while submissions to the Physical Review and PRL from abroad increased substantially and now exceed submissions from U.S. authors by a ratio of two to one. "The APS journals now mirror the globalization of physics research and are regarded in many subfields as the best vehicle to publicize and validate an author's work," said Merzbacher.

The task force attributed the spectacular growth in submissions from outside the U.S. to a combination of circumstances, including growth of the community of active research physicists; more "publish or perish" pressures on physicists everywhere; pressure on authors from employers and funders to publish in the Physical Review; increasing popularity of Physical Review among authors; and declining availability of competing journals in many libraries, probably due to rising subscription costs.

Results from the foreign author survey led the task force to conclude that the Physical Review is recognized as the leading international journal in many subfields of physics, and its availability in physics libraries worldwide makes it the preferred journal for authors desiring to reach a wide readership, as well as a target audience in their specialties. Foreign authors tend to be in the early stages of their careers and represent a broad cross section of nationalities, from the established physics communities in Europe and Japan to the rapidly emerging Pacific Rim.

A 1992 Council resolution reaffirmed the long-standing editorial policy for the journals of accepting for publication those submitted manuscripts that sufficiently contribute to the advancement of physics and meet the journal's standards of quality and format. The task force set a goal of lowering manuscript acceptance rates by 10 to 20 percent, not by imposing arbitrary limits, but by raising the standards of scientific quality for the journals.

To achieve this end, the task force called for journal editors to enforce more stringently the requirement that a manuscript contain significant new physics; to emphasize high quality and scientific interest to referees as necessary criteria for acceptance; and to act more promptly and resolutely in making decisions to accept or reject manuscripts, on the basis of one referee report whenever possible. This, said Merzbacher, would reduce protracted interchanges between the author, editor and referee, thus reducing the time between manuscript submission and acceptance or rejection.

Other recommendations included improving the refereeing process by using electronic communication between editors, and referees curtailing serial publication of articles that can be combined; simplifying the appeals procedures; adopting guidelines that would afford editors discretion in summarily disposing of papers that are obviously not good physics; establishing and enforcing stricter procedures requiring manuscripts to be submitted in proper format and acceptable English; and offering incentives for authors to submit papers electronically.

While he and his staff have already taken action on the recommendations for stricter requirements on submitted manuscripts, and for expediting editorial decisions, Physical Review B Editor Peter Adams emphasized that a key element in controlling growth lies with the authors. "Despite all of the pressures to publish, it is essential that the author take a highly responsible approach to what he or she submits to the journal," said Adams, adding that a significant fraction of submitted papers contain serial or incremental work that could be combined. "A more rigorous self-refereeing by authors would be of tremendous help."

Finally, the task force concluded that the long-range impact of electronic publishing is impossible to foresee. However, "the leadership and management of the APS are clearly responsive to the need for adapting to the rapidly changing circumstances in scientific publishing," said Merzbacher, pointing to the decision to publish Physical Review Letters online this year, paving the way for making the entire Physical Review available electronically in the not-too-distant future. Other suggestions included giving high priority to experiments with electronic bulletin boards because of their potential for screening articles for quality and projected impact, as well as encouraging electronic archiving, tracking, and delivery of journals.

The other members of the APS Task Force on Journal Growth were Heinz H. Barschall (University of Wisconsin, Madison), Wick C. Haxton (University of Washington), John R. Kirtley (IBM/T.J. Watson Research Center), T. Maurice Rice (Swiss Institute of Technology), Barrett H. Ripin (APS Associate Executive Officer), Jin-Joo Song (Oklahoma State University), and Erick J. Weinberg (Columbia University).

Those interested in obtaining a copy of the full report of the APS Task Force on Journal Growth should contact the APS Executive Office, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3844; 301-209-3269; FAX: 301-209-0865.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin