APS News

McIlrath Maintains Fiscal Health Amid Rapid Economic Changes

Since assuming the position of APS Treasurer last November, Thomas McIlrath has helped steer the Society into the brave new world of electronic publishing, with all its associated economic ramifications, while continuing to follow the sound fiscal policies and procedures implemented by his predecessor, Harry Lustig. As the Society's chief financial officer, he is responsible for the preparation and administration of the APS budget, for the Society's investments, for business interactions with the American Institute of Physics (AIP), for the Society's legal affairs, and for personnel policies and administration.

The Treasurer also participates in all aspects of the governance, policy formation and administration of the Society, along with the Executive Officer and Editor-in-Chief. Along with these duties, McIlrath also assumed the new role of publisher of the APS journals, a position which previously had not existed.

"One of my roles as publisher is marketing," he said. "I use the word in the best sense of finding ways of bringing physics information to people whom it will benefit, and to better serve our customers."

McIlrath feels that this focus reflects the Society's growing recognition that it has a wide spectrum of members and must serve a broader range of needs than in the past.

McIlrath initially intended to study chemical engineering as an undergraduate in college, since "my physics course in high school convinced me that physics was a very uninteresting subject." However, the daunting prospect of the required memorization in organic chemistry compelled him to explore physics as an alternative with a course in classical mechanics, and he found he greatly enjoyed it.

"Physics quickly became an intellectual discipline that I couldn't let go of," he said of the experience. "I discovered that I had not had a good representation in high school. It reminds me continually of the need to present physics in its true glory in the classroom." Of course, "Once I got into it, there was no question about staying there," said McIlrath.

He received his Ph.D in physics from Princeton University in 1966 and spent the following year as a NATO postdoctoral fellow at England's Oxford University. After several years as a research associate at Harvard College Observatory, he joined the faculty of the University of Maryland, where he was a professor in the Institute for Physical Science and Technology prior to joining APS, in addition to serving as associate dean for research and graduate studies and as staff physicist for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He has also been an active member of the APS Division of Laser Science, which he chaired in 1988.

Q One of the Society's stated priorities in recent years has been the establishment of on-line versions of its scientific journals. How close are we to achieving that goal?

A Currently, all of our journals are online except for Reviews of Modern Physics (RMP), which we hope to have online by January 1, 1998. The electronic journals are clearly going to be central to the way the Society develops. Our fundamental mission is the advancement and diffusion of the knowledge of physics, and clearly the electronic medium is the most efficient way to distribute knowledge. The expenses for preparing scientific journals are not going to drop dramatically when we get the online vehicle in place. But for a very modest increase in cost, we can greatly increase accessibility to the information we distribute, as well as the quality of that information.

Also, more unit news is being sent out electronically to save on postage and paper costs, and we're moving as much as we can towards trying to get our members to use our Web pages. The effect is often that you find an increase in the volume of information transferred which at least partially cancels your efficiency. You end up coming out ahead, but you accomplish a lot more than just saving money. So it is a tool that will allow us to more effectively serve our stated goal.

Q How has the APS chosen to price its new electronic journals and other electronic products?

A All APS journals, except RMP, are currently available electronically to members at the cost of a very modest dinner ($25). Furthermore, we have instituted a plan whereby institutional libraries can register IP addresses when they subscribe to a journal that allow access with no additional charge across the campus, company or institution. One caveat is that it's very early in the development of the economics of electronic journals and other electronic products. Services and pricing are going to evolve, and every year will be a little different until we find the method that provides the most efficient and effective distribution with the fairest distribution of cost.

There are a variety of models for handling cost. For example, some electronic journals and products of other societies are supported by a fee paid by the author, and/or the agency supporting the work. The information then becomes free to the entire community. This model puts the cost on those who want to disseminate the information electronically, whereas the print subscriptions put almost all of the cost on the library subscribers. With the print subscriptions, it's very difficult to charge large libraries differently than small libraries, resulting in what some perceive to be an inequity in cost. Having the cost borne by the provider of the information removes that particular imbalance. All of these issues are now being discussed and evaluated.

Q There has been a great deal of discussion and experimentation with page charges for the APS print journals in recent years. What is the process currently in place?

A Page charges have been eliminated for Physical Review C and D (PR-C and PR-D) and are being phased out over a period of a few years for all of the other APS journals except Physical Review Letters (PRL). However, in all cases the removal of page charges is for manuscripts which are submitted electronically, via Compuscript. The page charge for non-Compuscript paper manuscripts will remain for all of the journals. In addition, a page charge continues to be assessed for all submitted manuscripts for Physical Review Letters.

Q Do electronically submitted manuscripts help cut down on the overall production costs for APS journals?

A Not at present. This is because of the variety of formats which people use to submit manuscripts electronically, and because the community as a whole has not developed tools that will allow the mathematics in these multiple formats to be electronically converted into the final file type needed. So the immediate goal in our new page charge policy is to get our community more accustomed to electronic submissions. As we develop the authoring tools to convert different submission formats to the final SGML product that we need - or the XYvision product in the case of AIP - we do expect to save money. But that savings will appear in the future.

Q The APS remains in a strong position financially, especially in terms of its investments and reserve fund. What are some of your guiding policies for maintaining the Society's fiscal health in the coming years?

A I try to keep the operating budget roughly even, with maybe even a small loss reflecting the work we're doing in education and public policy. Fundamentally each activity covers its own costs except for education and public policy and we use some portion of the investment income to cover those activities. Basically we follow a somewhat conservative pattern, in which we allow the investments to continue to strengthen. This is in part because we don't know how the investment picture will change. We may earnestly believe that all of our heavy rowing allows us to control our fate, but the truth is the winds and the tides are sweeping us where they will, and we often have a small effect on where the economic ship is going.

We also need the investment income to keep abreast with the effects of inflation in increasing the expenses of the Society. One of the features of the movement towards electronic publishing is that even if you can be more efficient and need fewer staff, those staff need to be much more technically proficient, and the cost per staff member is almost certain to rise above the adjusted cost of living level. Furthermore, there is much concern that we will enter into a period of very challenging economics when the library community begins to move heavily towards electronic journals, possibly cancelling their institutional paper subscriptions. There's a small 7 to 8 percent surplus on publications which we invest in new resources, especially in the electronic arena, to increase the quality of the publications.

Q Are there any plans to increase or decrease membership dues in the near future?

A It's been several years since there was any increase in membership dues. Ours are low compared to professional dues in many organizations, and they cover activities which directly benefit members. We do not use membership money to handle the education and public policy activities. To cut dues would result in using the library subscriptions to pay for membership activities, and we really don't want to do that. Libraries are under tremendous pressure these days. I would rather have our members come to us with suggestions as to what additional services we can provide to better serve them rather than simply reduce dues.

Q Along with AIP, the APS has been embroiled in a long, complicated lawsuit brought in several different countries with the scientific publishing company, Gordon and Breach (G&B). What is the current status of the various venues?

A The German lawsuit has been settled in favor of the APS and AIP. The APS and AIP have won the Swiss suit many times, but the decision continues to be appealed by G&B. The French lawsuit is still under consideration. There is also an American lawsuit with two aspects to it. One was the publication of the original articles themselves, which was quickly decided by the judge in favor of APS and AIP on the basis of freedom of speech, although it is possible that G&B will appeal that decision. The issue of whether the articles were used in what's called "secondary use" for advertising was felt to be worthy of a hearing. A trial before the judge, not a jury trial was scheduled. That was held in early June, after an extensive period of discovery and preparation. The judge has just ruled completely in favor of the APS and AIP.

Q Are there any new services or journals planned for specific groups within the APS?

A One APS Division has expressed some dissatisfaction with the major journal that they were using for publication. So we are looking into setting up an all-electronic journal to serve that community. The preliminary outline of what that could involve has been sent to the division for discussion. That initiative has stimulated us to think about the way electronic journals can be used for our diverse communities. We feel that the use of all-electronic journals will greatly increase our ability to address the needs of special groups within the Society, and to expand our journal offerings without having to burden the libraries with large numbers of new paper journals. So we're excited about the prospect of doing something in this area.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin