Bederson Lead APS Journals Into Electronic Age
Continuing economic pressures, the phasing out of page charges, and an explosion in electronic product offerings are just a few of the revolutionary changes that have occurred in the APS publishing operations during the five-year tenure of APS Editor-in-Chief Benjamin Bederson, who retired in December. Bederson was appointed to the position in 1991, succeeding David Lazarus of the University of Illinois.
Bederson's appointment as editor-in-chief brought considerable editorial experience with scientific journals, and APS journals in particular, to the position. He served as editor of Physical Review A from 1978 to 1991 and was also an associate editor of Atomic Data and Nuclear Data Journal. His expertise proved to be a valuable asset in 1992-1993, when a task force on electronic publishing chaired by former APS president Eugen Merzbacher (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) recommended that the Society should make every effort to take advantage of the electronic revolution.
Since then, the development of the Society's online products has accelerated rapidly. "The enormous acceleration of electronic offerings has been a surprise to many people," said Bederson. "We are much further along than people thought we would be five years ago." In addition to producing online versions of several of its journals, the APS has also developed an Eprint Server, modelled after the one currently in place at Los Alamos National Laboratory. (For more information on the Society's electronic activities, see APS Online, a special insert to APS News, November 1996.)
Bederson served in the U.S. Army during World War II, the last two years in the "Special Engineering Detachment" at Los Alamos. Completing his interrupted undergraduate education at CCNY he obtained his Ph.D. at NYU, in atomic physics and gaseous electronics. He then held a postdoctoral appointment for two years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working with Jerrold Zacharias in the atomic beams laboratory, measuring nuclear spins and magnetic moments.
Bederson returned to NYU in 1952 and has taught there ever since, chairing the Department of Physics from 1973 to 1976 and completing a three-year term as Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1989. His research over the years has focused on the use of beam techniques to study atomic and molecular interactions and structure, including polarizability measurements in ground and laser-excited states, and small cluster physics. He has also worked on gaseous electronics and plasma physics. A former chair of the APS Division of Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics, Bederson has served on numerous government and academic advisory committees, and was the first chair of the NAS-NRC Committee on Atomic and Molecular Science.
This year marks Bederson's third official "retirement" from his various positions, and while he plans to do some teaching and writing, he doesn't intend to take on any more administrative responsibilities. "Everybody always asks me what I'm going to do after I retire, and one way of stopping them is to tell them what I heard about Dr. Ruth Westheimer," he said of his future plans. "They ask her the same question all the time. She eventually shut them up by telling them that she's decided to go back to school to become a dental technician."
Q What do you consider to be the most important changes that have occurred with regard to the APS journals during your tenure as editor-in-chief?
A I would say the continuing increase and prestige of all of our journals, and at the same time the increasing internationalization of the journals. Currently two-thirds of papers submitted to the Physical Review are from international authors. But it's not just the prestige, it's the fact that publishing in our journals ensures a large international audience for scientific papers. Our journals are also the ones of choice for international libraries. A similar percentage of our library subscriptions are now also international.
Q There has also been tremendous growth in the area of electronic publishing. Does the Society have any specific goals in terms of producing online versions of all its journals?
A First, it's important to point out that we have a partner in electronic publishing, the American Institute of Physics, and we're working very closely with them to ensure that our journals go online as fast and as easily accessible as possible. According to the present timeline, all APS journals, including Reviews of Modern Physics, will be online by the third quarter of 1997. We already have online versions of Physical Review Letters, Physical Review B Rapid Communications, Physical Review C and Physical Review D in various forms. It's still a little early to determine how many APS members are actually using the online versions, but the number of paid subscriptions for PRL has been encouragingly high.
Q What are some of the challenges currently facing the APS journals?
A The rapid growth of the Society's journals is perhaps our biggest problem apart from decreasing library subscriptions. During my tenure as editor-in-chief journal growth exceeded 8 or 9 percent annually in terms of the number of submissions. This was clearly an unstable situation, and it was difficult to see how we could keep this up. There were many reasons for concern. For example, the libraries simply couldn't acquire space fast enough to keep up with the increasing volume of our journals. Also, with growth comes corresponding increases in production costs. Although we believe our journals represent an enormous value compared to cost, libraries simply couldn't continually increase their budgets to accommodate our increasing costs because of growth.
Q How has the Society addressed the issue of growth?
A Eugen Merzbacher chaired a Task Force on Journal Growth which issued its report in 1995, recommending that APS editors significantly increase their acceptance standards. Even preceding the recommendation, acceptance rates for the APS journals had been steadily decreasing because of higher standards. Today, submissions have begun to level off. For example, our increase in submission rate last year was about 3 percent, much lower than in previous years.
So we feel we have the growth problem under control, which should be a blessing for libraries, until the day when electronic publishing becomes a standard and paper volumes no longer have to occupy enormous amounts of space. However, I must emphasize that despite claims that paper journals will eventually disappear, we do not in the foreseeable future see our archival paper journals disappearing. We believe that they still serve a valuable function and will continue to do so, even in these early days of the electronic revolution.
Q You mentioned the fall off in library subscriptions. What is the underlying cause of this?
A In the current tight budgetary climate, libraries continually have to make painful decisions: for example, choosing between cancellations of certain other journals or cancellations of multiple subscriptions to APS journals. Partly as a result of the growing number of libraries who opt for the latter, our library subscriptions continue to decline at a small percentage each year. This phenomenon has been going on for at least a decade and I don't see any indication of this changing.
Q The issue of page charges has long been a source of concern, particularly to journal editors. Has the Society made any progress towards resolving the dilemma?
A The page charge problem has been resolved. As previously reported in APS News, there was an experimental suspending of page charges in PRD for all articles and in PRC for electronically submitted articles. When the experiment ended, there was some controversy as to how to proceed. There were several important issues. One was equity among all journals; short-term experiments are fine, but in the long term, we must adopt an identical policy for all our journals. After agonizing over this throughout 1995, the decision was made to gradually phase down page charges for almost all of our journals for electronically submitted articles. Thus, in four years' time, page charges will vanish for all APS journals except PRL, which will continue to have page charges.
This will put a strain on our other income sources, since it leaves institutional subscriptions as our only source of real income, and these have been decreasing slightly each year. Although in the past page charges have been completely voluntary, with no penalty for non-payment, a majority of authors do honor them, even though that rate is slowly declining. So whereas page charges have accounted for a huge fraction of our income in the past, by the year 2000 they will virtually disappear, because we expect the rate of electronically submitted manuscripts to approach 100 percent by then.
Q How does the Society plan to counter these expected decreases in its net income?
A Not only are we phasing out page charges, but the APS Council has mandated that we can't increase our library subscription rates by more than 10 percent per year to make up the loss. In the past, increases have been about 15 percent per year. So there are going to be economic squeezes on the journals in the future. This will be made up to some extent by our decreasing acceptance rates, as well as mandated economies in our editorial office in Ridge, New York. It will simply have to become more efficient and operate on a tighter budget than in the past. Then all-electronic of the editorial office is expected to significantly reduce operating costs and production time of our journals.
However, we must recognize that the APS is almost unique in the fact that it has a central editorial office where career editors work together on its journals, in concert with number of field editors who are all practicing physicists. This does make for a costlier operation than having entirely remote editorial operations, but at the same time it has contributed to the reputation of our journals, and made it possible to have uniform standards and policies.
Q The surplus from the APS journals has traditionally been used to fund many of the Society's other activities, including those in the areas of education, career development, public affairs, and women and minorities in physics. Will the phasing out of page charges have an adverse effect on these activities in addition to journal operation?
A My feeling is that both the journals and the APS are going to do just fine in the future. Is likely that our net income - that is to say, our revenue over expenses - will decline in years to come. However, supplemented by investment income, it will remain large enough to supply the funds needed for the operation of all the important functions of our Society, including public service, services for physicists, and education.
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