APS News

Blume Guides APS Journals Into Electronic Age

A little more than one year has passed since Martin Blume, a condensed matter physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, took over as APS editor-in-chief, and his tenure thus far has yielded impressive results. As of July 1, 1997, all of the Physical Review and Physical Review Letters are available electronically, and many new features, such as searching and linking, are now possible on-line. Blume envisions an even brighter electronic future for the Society's publishing activities.

The APS Editor-in-Chief has responsibility for the research journals published by the Society, including the large editorial and journal support staff located in Ridge, New York. Responsibilities include preserving and enhancing the quality of APS journals, leading APS efforts in electronic publishing, working with senior editors to set journal policies, and handling appeals and ethics cases involving authors.

Like many of today's professional physicists, Blume's interest in science dates back to his childhood. He was fascinated by chemistry sets and eventually proved to be quite proficient in mathematics. "I can still see the look on the face of the track coach when I told him I couldn't go out for the track team because the math team met at the same time," he said. "You know, there are no cheerleaders on math teams!" As an undergraduate at Princeton, his interest turned from mathematics to physics, eventually leading him to pursue graduate studies.

Blume received his PhD in physics from Harvard University in 1959 and spent the following year as a Fulbright Fellow at Tokyo University. After two years as a research associate at AERE in Harwell, England, he joined the staff of Brookhaven, where he headed the solid state physics group and chaired the National Synchrotron Light Source Department before becoming deputy director in 1984. From 1972 to 1980 he was also a professor of physics at SUNY-Stony Brook.

Blume's research interests include theoretical solid state physics, magnetism, phase transitions, slow neutron scattering and synchrotron radiation. His extensive APS service includes stints as chair of the Panel on Public Affairs and Nominating Committee, as well as service with the Forum on Physics and Society and on the APS Council and Executive Board. He has also served on the editorial board of the Physical Review in addition to several other publications.

Blume credits much of what has been accomplished in the last year as the fulfillment of efforts begun by his predecessor, Benjamin Bederson (New York University), as well as an outstanding and dedicated staff of editors. "I think as long as we have people like this around, the future of our journals is very positive," he said.

Q What is the APS doing to encourage more use of the electronic versions of its journals? What are some of the advantages to be gained?

A Physicists can now take advantage of the low cost personal subscriptions offered to our membership, or may gain on-line access through their institutions to all print journals to which the institutions subscribe. We also set up a "free fee line", where visitors to our electronic journals can view the front page and the table of contents for any issue. We also revised the business plan for the electronic journals. Early on, we met with the pricing subcommittee, asking to make the electronic versions of the journals available to institutional subscribers at no extra charge. The rationale is that it encourages people to use the electronic format and become accustomed to it.

We've also made the abstracts available without charge. This gives some valuable information away, but for the APS it's appropriate. It's a teaser, in terms of a marketing approach. You show people a little bit, and if they find it interesting, they will want to read more, whereas if they just see the title, they might not take a chance on looking at the entire article. One of the things that we will be moving toward in the next year is Pay-Per-View, which means if you don't have a subscription, you would still be able to download an article for a minimal use fee.

Q Now that the journals are all on-line, what other steps does the Society plan to take in terms of electronic publishing?

A The on-line availability of our journals is but a step toward a hazily defined future. Many pieces of this future are already in place. Paul Ginsparg's e-print archive at Los Alamos embodies these modes of distribution, and gives scientists the results of research at a very rapid pace. While the papers are unrefereed (though there is the possibility of commenting on submitted e-prints) they can be used by editors and referees to supplement their own knowledge of the papers being reviewed. The APS has formed an agreement for use of Ginsberg's e-print site. (See APS News, March 1998).

We also recently announced the first of what will become a new, all-electronic journal series: Physical Review Special Topics (see APS News, March 1998). The first in this series is titled Accelerators and Beams. This is both a new journal and an opportunity for us to work on electronic journals without having to accommodate a previous print version. We have put our journals on-line by completing the printing process and then making a few additions so that they can be posted on the Internet. This is a smart way of getting on-line quickly, but clearly the wrong way to do things. Print should be a derivative of the electronic version, and not the other way around. Only then can we take advantage of the many enhancements, cost savings and speedup of publication potentially made possible by electronic submission, refereeing, and distribution.

Q What must be done in order to reach the goal of producing the electronic version first?

A The present situation in publishing can be compared to the revolution in personal transportation that took place in the 50 years after the founding of the Physical Review. The horse and buggy was gradually replaced with the automobile. Our publishing situation is at the stage where the horse and buggy is being replaced, but with an automobile that looks like a buggy with an internal combustion engine. Only when the automobile was designed from the ground up, without basing it on the buggy, did it reach its full potential.

In other words, we have to modify the entire process. The APS must move as quickly as possible to adopt new ways of working, but should not abandon its own strengths. Peer review is essential, but we can enhance the process and make it more effective by using electronic tools. We've been working hard on getting more authors to submit their articles electronically, and we are just beginning to make the refereeing process electronic. In the new system, referees will download articles for review, either off an e-print server or off our own internal server.

Q Do you foresee a time when electronic versions will completely replace print versions of the journals?

A No. We must continue to put out the print version, because print provides the only archival medium now recognized as permanent, and because many physicists still prefer it to reading something on a screen. We can visualize a future in which print distribution disappears, but it's very hard to visualize one in which print versions disappears completely. That of course significantly lowers costs, because you don't have any of the shipping costs. Those wanting paper copies would still be able to download and print their own journals from the electronic versions.

Q What is the rationale behind the Society's recent agreement with the Department of Energy for electronic subscriptions to APS journals?

A The Department of Energy cancelled its subscriptions for Physical Review, not by the program people, who require access to the journals, but by the controller's office, which desires to cut costs. Naturally, they were quite concerned about this. So we now have a six-month agreement to make available just an electronic subscription of the journals to DOE headquarters, so that the program people can use it. This is essentially a test run to determine how well the electronic versions are utilized. In the long run, the DOE's Office of Scientific and Technical Information is interested in the possibility of a large-scale subscription that would cover all of their institutions, not just DOE headquarters.

Q What is the APS doing in terms of electronic archival storage for its journals?

A We are continuing to work on the Physical Review Online Archive (PROLA), and we expect to have an early test version available publicly very soon. We have it available in a few pilot sites, but it's not yet widely distributed because we're working to make the system more robust. Then, we will go back in time to include all articles published in Physical Review since 1985. We have the capability to go back as far as 1975 without much travail. Ultimately we would like to go back to 1893, including the entire contents of the journal since its inception in the on-line archive.

Q The substantial growth rate of the APS journals has been a marked concern in recent years. Is this exponential rate of growth continuing?

A It seems to be slowing down right now, but there have always been minor fluctuations. The number of manuscripts submitted has grown at approximately 6% per year for a number of years. It's currently down to about 4%. On the other hand, this puts tremendous pressure on our editorial staff, causing us to raise prices occasionally to cover costs. The number of published articles is growing at about 3% right now, as we try to cut back by applying more stringent standards. However, it takes more effort to reject a paper than to publish it,and our editorial staff becomes significantly burdened as a consequence.

Q Is the APS still struggling with the issue of how best to handle pricing, as well as distribution, of its electronic products?

A Yes. The distribution of physics journals has been largely unchanged since the founding of the Physical Review in 1893. But we are in the midst of a revolution in the distribution of the results of scientific research, and physicists are playing a major role, both technologically and conceptually, in that revolution. One example of this is the CD-ROM version of the splendid centenary collection of two hundred important Physical Review papers, containing not only the 200 papers selected for printing, but also 800 more that were worthy of note, but which could not be printed without busting the budget and the backs of the librarians who have to shelve the volume.

The new electronic journal will be distributed without charge, and we are still exploring options of how best to finance the endeavor. At first we were looking at submittal charges and publication charges. The problem is that individual scientists have to pay this out of their research budgets. Then the idea came along that we go to a number of the largest accelerator laboratories and ask them for a contribution, in lieu of publication charges for their institution. So we are hoping to do this with sponsorship.

Q What would you personally like to see happen in the Society's publishing activities in the next few years?

A I would like to see greater communications in physics, especially in light of the fact that it's very difficult for many people to read Physical Review Letters. In fact, we've just engaged a science writer, David Ehrenstein, who will be writing a new all electronic journal service called Physical Review Focus. (See the article about PR Focus on page 1.) Initially, PR Focus will be a website with short readable versions of articles appearing in PRL. It is aimed at professional physicists, so that when you use the term "wave function," you don't have to explain it. This can go in a number of different directions and we expect to expand it, but we're starting modestly. At first there will simply be an electronic version.

Q What are some of the potential barriers to the future of electronic distribution of scientific information?

A Electronic distribution will not succeed if the Internet becomes a toll version of the Long Island Expressway. A robust, reliable, fast, cheap Internet is required for the entire electronic enterprise to work. Right now it is cheap, but neither fast nor reliable, especially where international transmissions are involved. Nor do we have assurance that the low cost will continue, particularly since telecommunications companies regard the Internet as a potential source of considerable revenue. In addition, improvements in connectivity are often matched by a disproportionate increase in public access, leading to reduced speed and even gridlock. It may therefore be necessary to arrange for an international research network separate from the public one. This was, of course, the origin of the Internet, and would simply take us back to its roots.

There are remarkable possibilities in the electronic future, but many economic, technological, and sociological potholes to be avoided if those possibilities are to be realized. The APS is intent on being in the forefront of the new era; we don't want to be the blacksmiths of this revolution. We must do this while maintaining the high quality of the published research that has been our focus for the past one hundred years.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin