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Present and future capabilities of the online journal.


Although it has been popular for some time to claim that the technical problems associated with the electronic delivery of journals have been solved, or are simply those of scale (Lancaster, 1978, p. 141), it is only recently that the operating systems, windowing systems, fonts, communications facilities, and computational capacities have matured enough to handle the demands placed on them by electronic journal applications.

As existing materials become electronic, there is a clear and predictable migration: the more highly used a source is and the more that currency is important, the more quickly electronic versions become available. A third criterion is ease with which the transition can be made. Following these guidelines, reference materials, such as abstracting and indexing services, were available first. These materials are highly used, require being kept current, and are relatively compact. Abstracting and indexing databases also offered relatively few problems in computerization; text with a simple structure for the bibliographic information is perfectly adequate for these databases.

Next to be transferred are reference works, such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, and handbooks. This has already happened. Even though these sources pose some of the more difficult technical problems, they are very valuable, and both online and CD-ROM versions are appearing (Budd & Williams, 1993).

Journals offer more problems. They are not as heavily used, so that conversion to electronic form has to be relatively inexpensive, but the typography of journals can be very complex. Although simple textual versions have been available for some time, fully functional journals have only become available recently, both as page image and as structured text, described later.

The final stage will be access to books electronically. Some of this is happening now in multimedia CD-ROM and online access, but the general appearance of electronic books will trail that of journals (Lacy, 1993).

Differences Between Paper and Online Journals

Although some of the differences between online and paper journals were fairly easy to predict, such as the importance of individual articles over journal issues or even titles (Hickey, 1981) and the efficiencies of central storage and electronic mail (Folk, 1977), we are only gradually becoming aware of other differences. The differences which are currently most apparent are the relative ease of publication compared to paper, the importance of hypertext links, color graphics, and immediacy of communication with the authors.

It is now possible for sophisticated computer users connected to the Internet to obtain free software and make their information freely available to millions of people (Dallman et al., 1994). Currently, the most popular method is via the World Wide Web (CERN, 1994b). After this has been done, other users can add their own papers with only moderate effort. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of sites are now doing this on the Internet.

The documents being put up at these sites range from what are easily recognized as journals to much looser collections of files. What they have in common are hypertext links with which the author can point to other files of interest. Another common characteristic of these documents is the extensive use of color graphics. Possibly this is simply a matter of the novelty of being able to include color in documents with relative ease, but it is rapidly becoming the norm.

Another important feature of this informal electronic publication is the immediacy of communication that can be accomplished between the author and reader. The people using these systems nearly all have electronic mail, allowing immediate feedback to the author, and new versions of papers can be published immediately after completion. This has the effect of creating new communities with the ability to discuss and comment on works in progress unknown just a few years ago.

The different economic factors associated with online journals (composed with conventional journals) have yet to have much impact on libraries and publishers, but as their use increases, this will have a profound effect as more centralized storage becomes feasible, and libraries' role in archiving journal issues diminishes. What the impact on libraries and publishers will be of what libraries now consider "gray literature" that is now becoming so important on the Internet is impossible to predict, except that the changes will be profound.

Advantages of Online Journals

The electronic format offers many advantages to both users and publishers which paper publication cannot match:

* Customization. Only the articles of interest are delivered" and the user has some control over the appearance of the articles both printed and on the screen. * Integration with other work. As the capabilities of computers grow, a situation is rapidly developing in which many people do most of their work at personal computers (Reinhardt, 1994). The two most important tools for scholars are probably electronic mail (e-mail) and word processing, but other activities, such as searching bibliographic databases, working with spreadsheets and, more and more, filing and creating personal databases, are all being done with personal computers. The ability to refer to articles at the same time on the same machine as other tasks are performed will become invaluable. * Full-text searching. The retrieval capabilities of journals in electronic form are far better than those in paper. Every word in the article is a potential retrieval point so that even a caption of a figure can be used to find a half-remembered article. * Speed of access. Minutes or even seconds rather than hours or days. * Speed and cost of publication. Avoiding the printing and mailing process can easily drop two to three weeks off the current publication cycle. Machine-readable text from authors is gradually lowering costs and reducing time as authoring and publishing systems become better integrated (Lynch, 1994; Lacy, 1993) and, as electronic transmission is used more in the review process, additional time will be saved. * Availability. Assuming an electronic version of a document is available at all, there is a much higher probability of a user actually receiving it than in a typical library where journal issues and individual articles may be in use, in the bindery, or missing altogether. * Hypertext links. Existing journal articles contain a large number of links both within the article and to other articles. These will gradually become "hot" links in the electronic version, where a simple click on a reference will either lead one to where it was cited, to an abstract of it, or to the article itself. As articles change in response to this sort of capability, their organization may change into something more highly linked, relying on the ability to easily follow links to include references to other articles or other data sources (Manoff, 1992). * Portability. Although it is hard to improve on the portability of a photocopy of a single article, and electronic versions impose the burden of providing processing, communications, and display support, the lightness and growing ubiquity of portable computers is rapidly closing the gap between electronic sources and paper. This is especially true if one considers that a simple CD-ROM could contain several thousand articles with complete indexing and graphics. One can conceive of having a complete copy of everything one has ever read contained within a notebook computer in addition to having fairly good access to everything else on the Internet. * Less paper. Paper has many excellent qualities, but electronic versions of documents consume fewer resources and are easier to manage.

Disavantages of Online Journals

Most disadvantages of online journals are rapidly, or gradually, disappearing, but there is no denying that, so far, these have overwhelmed any advantages of electronic journals over paper.

* Frustrating interfaces. Anyone who has used computers at all has encountered the frustration of being incapable of accomplishing a simple task. The same sort of thing can happen to conventional library users, but it is often less obvious and frustrating, and very often there is someone available to ask what to do. Manual solutions are often more obvious and easier to remember as well. * Reliance on equipment. At least with paper, you are assured that once it is in hand, you can read it, probably indefinitely. An electronic version will not only require computer hardware, but software, and this software will have to know the format of the journal to display it. * Less permanent. Electronic versions of online journals are easy to lose, and their reliance on software and hardware makes them impermanent. This is a problem both for institutions such as libraries that might want to preserve them and for individuals that wish to maintain their own collections (Stanley, 1994). * Higher and more obvious costs. The systems needed for display and the network needed to retrieve electronic articles are added costs to the end-user. Access to electronic articles is easier to monitor than to paper collections, so there is more possibility of publishers or others collecting fees for use. * Lower quality. Although recent electronic journals may rival a photocopy of an article, few rival the original print publication, especially on computer screens. These screens all have lower resolution than paper and are usually smaller than two pages of a journal. Photographs are often scanned incorrectly, and printers have only recently reached resolutions that can be called acceptable. * Requirement to log-on. This is at least an annoyance and, as pointed out earlier, can lead to higher, or at least more immediate, costs. Requiring a password also raises a barrier to use since it requires remembering it. There are also privacy issues; electronic access is only private when designed to be so, and publishers are obviously interested in what and how much material is being used, and to some extent, by whom (Hugenholtz, 1994). * Incompatible software. Different systems tend to require different software interfaces, each of which requires some effort to develop proficiency of use. * Less material available. This is probably the most crucial problem. The source material is the key to any successful library, whether it is paper or electronic. Electronic bibliographic databases have essentially achieved parity with their paper versions in coverage, but full-text journals cover only a small percentage of what is available in paper. Until this changes, usage of electronic versions of what is available will remain low. * Network speeds remain too low. This has a chilling effect on browsing because it takes much longer to look at a new page online than to flip to a new page in a paper journal. Techniques such as prefetching pages are only partially successful in ameliorating this.

Types of Electronic Journals

Electronic journals are offered in three main formats:

1. ASCII. Simple text, no formatting or graphics 2. Image. Scanned images of the pages (facsimile) 3. Structured Text. Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML)

Each has benefits, drawbacks, and rather distinctive capabilities. Structured text offers the most advantages in the long term and will be emphasized here, although page images will probably dominate over the next few years because of economic issues.

Simple Text

Often called ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) after the most commonly used encoding scheme or simply "full text," the text of the articles in many journals has been available electronically in this format for over a decade. Typically what is stored is the text of each article, broken into paragraphs, along with bibliographic information in a simple tagged format.


* Compact. Since only the text is stored (no graphics or page layout information), this is the most compact format, taking only 3,000 to 5,000 bytes per page. This makes it both cheaper to store and transmit to the user than other electronic formats. * Relatively cheap to capture. Often this can be done by processing the text entered during production of the journal. * Can be displayed on any computer terminal This is probably its greatest strength over other electronic formats. * Full text available for searching. This would seem obvious, although when pages are treated as images rather than text, a reliable version of the full text may not be available. * Compatible with electronic mail and computer bulletin boards. Textual databases are the easiest to integrate with other services, which themselves are text based (DIALOG DIRECT, 1994).


* Only the simplest tables and few equations can be represented adequately. The standard fixed-pitch font with only a few special characters in it is not up to the display of much of the published literature. * No figures available. The only thing stored is text. * No special characters displayed. This is more a difficulty in some disciplines than others, but characters not covered by the ASCII set occur in almost all fields occasionally. * No formatting of the text (e.g., no italics, bold, size changes). This is mostly an aesthetic problem, but typographic clues do provide substantial help when scanning and reading articles as well as making the page much more visually pleasing.

Although in many ways simple text is inadequate to represent many, if not most journal articles, actual users of "full-text" documents complain mostly about the lack of coverage of the present online journals (Everett, 1993a, 1993b).

Page Image Format

Page images are most easily thought of as facsimile images of the pages and, as a matter of fact, these are typically stored in CCITT Group 4 facsimile format because that is one of the most compact ways to store black and white scanned images of text. Conceptually, this could be expanded to include color images of pages, but current work is almost all black and white because of storage, scanning, and processing costs. In this way, it follows closely the lead of microfilm which is still almost completely black and white. This is likely to remain true because of the difficulty of representing text well in color formats, again similar to the tradeoffs in the film world of high contrast versus continuous tone and color.


* Easy and inexpensive to capture. After publication, the page is scanned on a digital scanner, usually at 300 dots per inch (dpi). An alternative is to capture the image directly from the typesetting system, which results in a dramatically improved image, even at the same resolution, because the artifacts introduced by the scanning process are avoided. Figure 1 shows examples of text that have been scanned and then converted into levels of gray for display, along with somewhat equivalent examples of what structured text looks like both displayed and printed. * Retains the format of the original Since it is the original paper which is scanned, the image is a relatively faithful representation of it.


* The text is usually available only via OCR (Optical Character Recognition). OCR is normally done from the scanned image, a surprisingly error prone process especially in scientific texts. * Display and printing is limited to the resolution of the original scan (normally 300 dpi). Even though higher resolution printers are becoming common, the costs of storing and transmitting higher resolutions ensures 300 dpi capture for some time to come. * Color is not normally available. The scanning process is almost always black and white, as is the transmission format. * Photographs are difficult to reproduce. A scanning resolution of 300 dpi is inadequate to capture half-tone photographs. * Images require a large screen for adequate use online. Since the format is that of the original paper, users have to cope with page images on the screen. Even the better screens, with over a thousand pixels across, can seldom show even a single page in its entirety and still have it easily readable. * Large amount of data for storage and transmission. This is the most voluminous storage format; each page typically takes 50,000 to 100,000 bytes making it somewhat expensive to store and slow to transmit and display. * Lack of text. A reliable version of the text is not normally available for manipulation.

There are currently several large projects using page images as their primary storage format, such as Red Sage (Cannon, 1994; Hoffman et al., 1993), ADONIS (Morris, 1994), Ariadne (Roes & Dijkstra, 1994), and TULIP (Willis et al., 1994; Zijlstra, 1994). By offering a fairly low cost method to publishers of getting their material in electronic form with a minimum disruption of their current procedures, this appears to be the most common format chosen by large-scale conversions. Image remains the only option for institutions such as libraries converting existing paper collections without having access to the original data.

Figure 1. Examples of text from different sources.

Scanned image optimal at 300 dpi

Screen display of optimal scanned image

Structured text optimal displayed on screen

Structured text optimal printed at 300 dpi

Structured Text Format

Structured text, which has now practically become synonymous with SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) (Barron, 1989), attempts to capture the essence of documents by marking up" the text so that the original form could be recreated, or even produce other forms and uses not thought of when the text was originally created. SGML is now often expected to have the parts of a document best represented as images, such as figures and photograpbs, linked to it so that they can also be displayed. A somewhat similar and competing standard is ODA (Office Document Architecture). Nicholas and Welsch (1992) give a good summary of the differences and similarities, which for this discussion can be ignored. SGML is by far the more important of the two in scholarly publishing.

SGML is an international standard (ISO, 1986) around which several are related standards on its application, such as NISO 12083 (NISO, 1994) on formatting mathematics, is gradually growing. Other applications, such as the Text Encoding Initiative (Gaynor, 1994; Sperberg-McQueen & Burnard, 1994), are using the SGML syntax to embed full cataloging of electronic publications within the publication itself. SGML is so flexible a language that applications such as HTML (HyperText Markup Language) (Berners-Lee, 1994) use the syntax to control the display format of documents and even the appearance of the user interface for interacting with the document.


* The text is available for searching and manipulation. Unlike the image format, a reliable textual form of the article is available. * Format is flexible. New capabilities, such as hypertext features and multimedia, are fairly easy to incorporate. This gives publishers the expectation of having a format that will be useful for many years in the future. * Creates a format useful for both electronic and paper production. This can be crucial to publishers who need to minimize costs. * Very readable text. Display of the text is limited primarily by the display device so that full advantage is taken of high resolution printers and displays. * Equations and tables can be accommodated. Not limited to simple text, these documents can be made capable of displaying essentially any character that can be printed. * Compact storage. Not as compact as simple text, since more information is stored, but even when graphics are included, storage is only about 8,000 to 15,000 bytes per page.


* Expensive to capture if not integrated with production of paper. Rekeying articles, including the SGML codes, is almost always too expensive to do on a production basis. * Relatively sophisticated software is needed for both production and display. This has been a primary barrier to its acceptance, but the situation is rapidly improving.

Thomas B. Hickey, OCLC Online Computer Library Center, 6565 Frantz Road, Dublin, OH 43017 LIBRARY TRENDS, Vol. 43, No. 4, Spring 1995, pp. 528-43 [C] 1995 the Boards of Trustees, University of Illinois * Publishers may lose some control over the presentation format. The flexibility noted earlier extends to the users of the material, which can fairly easily make extensive modifications to the display format, some of which (such as picking the wrong font for symbols) could actually change the meaning of the displayed text.

Other Formats

There are other ways of providing online journals, although most of these are built from the methods already mentioned earlier. OCLC's Electronic Journals Online service uses SGML as its primary form of input, but the documents are formatted, using TeX (Knuth, 1984), before being sent to the client (see the Architectures section later). This allows more control over the resulting display of the document, including reviewing the formatting for errors, before it is released into the database for general viewing but also requires a proprietary client to be installed by the user. Fortunately, because OCLC's source documents are in SGML, it is possible to support nonproprietary clients as well, although at some reduction in display fidelity to the original.

Another version of the electronic journal we have been actively experimenting with at OCLC is a mixed architecture. This system will allow a single client communicating with one or more servers to display image journals, HTML, and preformatted SGML journals all in one interface.

The CORE project (Weibel, 1994) is another example of a mixed system designed to explore the tradeoffs among the different formats. The American Chemical Society database has both structured text which has been converted to SGML as well as page images of all the articles. This has the advantage of being able to use SGML for the display of most of the text, and relying on the page images for some of the more difficult text, such as equations and complex tables.

Page description languages (PDLs), such as Adobe's PostScript (Adobe, 1985) and PDF (Portable Document Format) (Adobe, 1993), are similar to image databases in that formatted pages are displayed to the user but are text-, rather than facsimile-, based. These are attractive because it is very easy to capture them during the typesetting process. PostScript is especially easy to capture since it is what is used by many typesetting systems, and Adobe sells a converter program to turn most PostScript files into PDF files. One disadvantage of these is that either the page has to be stored as an actual image, which loses much of the compactness and device independence of the PDL, or a proprietary viewer has to be installed on the user's workstation. This makes PDLs most useful as a delivery format within a closed group of users.

So what is the best format to use? That, of course, is not a simple question to answer since the answer depends on so many factors and the whole system needs to be considered, but there are some generalizations that can be offered.

Simple ASCII text is extremely useful for searching and selection, but its inability to capture the richness of the original relegates it to markets such as law which have few figures or typographic clues. It is now mostly seen as an interim step to full SGML.

If the original text of the journal is not in a format easily converted into SGML, then page images are practically the only reasonable solution. The cost of rekeying data into SGML simply for electronic publication is prohibitive.

SGML offers the most flexibility both for today's electronic journals and for whatever possible products and services will be available in the future. If SGML is used in the original production of the journal, then the added costs are small compared to the benefit of having a version of the journal which can serve as a permanent archive and feed into an array of services.


One of the most talked about changes in computer software over the last few years has been the movement to a client-server architecture. The library world has been at the forefront of this with the development of the NISO Z39.50 standard for information retrieval (Lynch, 1991). Figure 2 shows a diagram of the basic elements of a client-server electronics journal. Clients and servers are both computer programs. The client typically resides on the user's personal computer, while the server resides at some remote location. The programs communicate over a telecommunications network using a well-defined, usually standard, protocol. The client is responsible for displaying the information it retrieves from the server. The server is responsible for controlling access to the information, recording usage statistics, and performing the computation needed to retrieve the information the client is going to display.

The most commonly used client in general use is undoubtedly NCSA's Mosaic interface (NCSA, 1994). This client is able to speak several different protocols so that it can connect to different types of servers. For use as an electronic publishing vehicle, its native HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) (CERN, 1994a) is the most used protocol for communication with servers. The information itself is transmitted in HTML (as mentioned above, this is an SGML variant), which the client interprets and displays as text and graphics on the user's screen or printer. The importance of clients and servers to users of electronic journals is that the development of the standard protocols allows a single client to connect to many different servers. This nearly eliminates the problem of having to use a different interface for each service one connects to because a single interface program may be able to connect to all the services one needs.

Rapidly Disappearing Problems

Much of the technology to deliver electronic journals has been in place for some time. It is interesting to speculate on why there has not been more push from publishers and libraries to offer these to patrons.

The answer is simple - cost. Although pieces of a system could all be demonstrated, the costs of delivering an electronic version to patrons were more expensive, from the capture of the material by the publisher, to the system needed in libraries to support it, and the type of hardware that it would take to make the material useful to end-users. As noted in the earlier discussion, electronic journals offer some substantial impediments to their use, and simply offering a clumsy alternative to photocopies at a higher price has limited appeal.

In many ways, offering journals in SGML with graphics is ideal from the user's perspective in that the resulting system integrates well with other computer applications. SGML tagging, however, requires a substantial investment by the publisher. To be cost effective, publishers need to change their production system so that SGML is used to produce both the paper and electronic versions. An alternative electronic version is to simply scan the existing paper version and manage the images rather than the text. In the past, this has been expensive because of the large amount of storage that images take (typically twenty times the space of the text). Decreases in storage and transmission costs have now reached the point where such images can be handled economically, offering an attractive way for publishers to start distributing their materials electronically.

We are now approaching the point, if it has not already been passed, where managing and storing such images electronically is cheaper than managing and storing the paper version, and we can therefore expect a fairly rapid migration to electronic access.

The computing environment that materials are being delivered to today is dramatically different than it was just a few years ago. Microsoft Windows has enjoyed enormous success, screens are larger, users are accustomed to fairly complicated computer applications, and the Internet has become a household word.

Remaining Problems

As noted earlier, cost is by far the most important factor that needs to improve. The simple increase in processor speed, computer memory, and communication capacities should ensure that. There is always a large social inertia which slows the adoption of innovation, but this author expects the switch to electronic access to journals to be fairly rapid. It is possible that, over a single decade, we will switch from paper as our major access to the journal literature to electronic and online access. Whether that will occur over the next decade is difficult to predict, but most indications point to that (Hunter, 1994).

There are some problems that are not going to go away, even given a continued rapid drop in hardware costs. As our databases get larger, retrieval of documents will become more and more of a problem. Online journals are more difficult to browse than paper journals - or at least more difficult than browsing a paper journal once you have gotten your hands on it - and this will take a long time to fix.

Display of equations and tables is still weak in structured text versions of articles. The difficulties of formatting text to arbitrarily sized windows on a user's workstation are only now beginning to be addressed, and, if the difficulties encountered in the batch systems currently used by publishers are any indication at all, these problems, along with associated font and page layout problems, will be with us for the indefinite future.

Although overall cost of a journal delivery system will certainly be cheaper than the current paper system (or else it won't be adopted at all), payment for the system is far from being worked out. It will probably be some combination of subscriptions and payment for individual articles, but what the mix will be is unknown. The growing importance of what was, in the past, called "gray literature" cannot be ignored here, as in the long term we may see a major change in how most articles are published.

Future Directions

The success of HTML in empowering the document to control the user's interface with the addition of links, buttons, maps, and text entry fields, has been a key to the success of Mosaic and the WWW and suggests a trend which can only grow and become more powerful. The document itself can contain a user interface. This allows tremendous flexibility in the types of information that can be displayed and interacted with.

Linkages among documents will become even more pervasive. As this happens in commercial publications, the links will also become more intelligent and stable so that the user is only occasionally disappointed to find nothing when trying a promising link. The speed of networks will increase to the point where browsing becomes more feasible. Displays will gradually become larger and have more resolution. The ideal here is probably something the size of a desktop with 300 dpi, which is years, maybe decades, away for the typical user.

Image databases will dominate the commercial and library sector, since it will take many years for publishers to switch to full use of structured text. We are only now seeing the first of this, with publishers that started investigating the possibilities of SGML several years ago. In the longer term, structured text offers so many advantages that it is expected to dominate newly published material.

Lynch (1994) offers an excellent presentation of the impact of network access to publications on several different types of organizations that produce information. Libraries are likely to be as affected as any of the publishers (Line, 1994; Piggot, 1993; Woodward, 1994). As more and more of the documents that libraries have traditionally collected, organized, stored, and provided access to become available instantly over the Internet, what is the purpose of the library? Of course libraries offer many more services than simply access to the published literature (Reich & Weiser, 1994), but certainly this access forms the core of their services.

What will not disappear will be the librarian's role in guiding users through the increasing number of information sources. Whether this person will be called a "librarian" and work in a library is less clear.


The main barriers to access to electronic journals are now primarily economic. There are also, of course, social barriers in acceptance, the time it takes publishers to become familiar with the technologies and start to use them, and the time it takes to develop usable software and make it widely available. Although display on the screen is not as good as paper, it is possible to build systems which, at the very least, will print paper versions of journal articles at a user's site that compare very favorably with good photocopies.

The connectivity to computer networks and the hardware and software needed for adequate article display are rapidly becoming commonplace. As soon as journal articles are placed online and pricing mechanisms that make the articles attractive are available, users will quickly learn to make use of them.


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Title Annotation:Networked Scholarly Publishing
Author:Hickey, Thomas B.
Publication:Library Trends
Date:Mar 22, 1995
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