Technology from Harrod's Creek
March 10, 2003

STM: Seeking The Money

Stephen E. Arnold, Information World Review with assistance from Dana Hallman, Web specialist, General Services Administration, USA

The image of the Web has morphed into a digital Vegematic for scientists. Like the quirky food processor of the 1970s touted to replace every kitchen appliance but the stove, some young chemists hope to generate millions by using Internet publishing tools to create, distribute, and communicate their pioneering work product. For STM (scientific, technical, and medical information) publishers and consumers, the digital world is a hybrid of Euro Disney and the motion picture The Matrix.

This view may prove unrealistic, but similar thinking did not prevent the Vegematic from selling millions before it faded from view.

For some chemists, the goal is discovering a cure for a disease. For physicists, the goal may be greater understanding of the universe. Software engineers may strive to be the next Bill Gates.

Regardless of profession, in any group of STM experts, some will write and publish information. The Web supports them all. Today, there are more options for STM publication than at any point in history. Innovation has established a mind-boggling array of scientific outlets for information, from Australia's Pathologically Polymathic Web log to Italy's Zanichelli Editore.

Tradition versus Innovation

Dr. Steve Heller, a former scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, continually looks for new and useful sources of chemical information. Heller uses ChemWeb preprints and the Internet Journal of Chemistry, and finds them quite useful.

"Efforts such as these are often seen as a challenge to the establishment," Heller says. "New techniques are often slow to catch on in a traditional discipline such as chemistry. Some see newcomers as trying to charge the culture of how to publish chemistry research and going against what the ACS [American Chemical Society] likes [or] approves."

Dr. Heller strikes the heart of a conflict: tradition versus innovation. Tradition produces one type of information flow, which is linear-a document is pushed through its stages of evolution and then effectively ceases to function. The Web-centric approach is another and what we can describe using John D. Barrow's phrase from The Constants of Nature, "eternally self-reproducing inflation." There is more data, more boundary crossing, and more invention. The life cycle of a document changes from its inception and format, to the manner in which it is capable of perpetual reproduction via electronic communication.

The information "inflation" is lumpy. Consider the STM publishing community. Reed-Elsevier, Wolters-Kluwer, Springer-Verlag, and about 100 other companies dominate journal and book publishing. A small number of firms command the lion's share of the revenue associated with STM publishing. These publishers are challenged by upstarts operating from different technical and financial premises, but the content focus is roughly similar. HighWire Press, the Public Library of Science, and SPARC represent one recent thrust. Quality information is on offer but at somewhat lower prices.

One Web innovation is the enigmatic, uncontrolled, and largely unknown world of Web logs or "blogs." Blogs are usually seen as online soapboxes or informal Web page newsletters. However, blogs are destined for greater prominence due to Google's acquisition of Pyra Labs, the San Francisco-based company that helps bloggers blog. The acquisition means that information once locked in the Israeli blog index will become more accessible on Google. A similar situation exists for blog content in Japan, Taiwan, China, and many Eastern European countries. Online translation tools promise to make accessible valuable information containers prepared by groups, not just individuals. One interesting index of blogs is Popdex, but it will soon face challenges from Google-Pyra Labs union.

Government Shift

Government data is another largely ignored area where Web formats will make a significant impact. About three years ago, a shift began in U.S. governmental agencies.

Around that time, a group of high-level economists were called to a meeting to discuss a topic considered taboo-publishing their research in a medium other than print. The meeting was called by the administrator of a U.S. government organization responsible for conducting and publishing agriculture economics research. The administrator began the meeting by announcing that the agency Web site would be redesigned. Every economist would be required to dedicate a portion of their time to the effort.

"Redesigning the Web site," the administrator announced, "is the organization's first step toward becoming more Web centric.

"Web centric? What does that mean?" asked one economist, who seemed more than a little skeptical.

"What it means is that we will be rethinking how we publish our research," answered the administrator. "It means that we will no longer only think of paper publications as our premier product, but that we will also think about the best way to conduct and deliver our research using the Internet. We must do this to remain competitive and relevant in this digital economy."

Less than two years after the pronouncement was made (warp speed in government time) the Department of Agriculture published its first peer-reviewed electronic journal.

At approximately the same time, the Department of Commerce's National Technical Information Service (NTIS) received a mandate to become self-sustaining. NTIS had to produce a larger share of its operational expenses from the sale of information.

As these two governmental units changed their direction, the Office of Management & Budget authorized the General Services Administration to provide a free online search-and-retrieval service for the public. In the span of one year, the U.S. government triggered changes that created a different--and somewhat conflicting--digital services to provide STM information. The torrential quantity of information, in addition to the complex mechanisms that run government, inevitably lead to redundancies and general confusion.

New Use of Web

Changes in STM publishing are profound. Harry Collier, Managing Director of Infonortics, Ltd. in Tetbury, Glou., and host of one of the world's preeminent conferences on chemical information, is a close observer of STM publishing. He sees the Web as providing a mechanism for authors to communicate directly with their colleagues.

"In this communication process, the Web cuts out the intermediaries," Collier says. "The problem for these intermediaries is that they are used to charging quite heavily for their services; and the new generation of rising STM workers, who have grown up with the Web and the idea that 'stuff is free,' are increasingly not going to take kindly to the idea of paying multiple thousands of up-front dollars for highly restrictive subscriptions.

Collier believes that increasingly, communication with colleagues will happen via the Web, interactive workgroups, groups of practice and within online virtual communities. He predicts that few fee-based STM publishing sources will remain, and those that do will have a specialist application within STM information."

"Long term it is inevitable that some of the new services will challenge historical profit margins for commercial journal publishers," says Michael Tansey, a senior officer in the Thomson Corp.'s STM holdings.

Tansey goes on to say that industry analysts have regularly predicted the demise of traditional STM publishing as a result of free and available alternatives.

"From the days of Ginsparg's pre- print servers through the NIH attempts to create pubmed central and the SPARC funding of new journal titles, there has been a sense that there will be revolutionary change," Tansey says.

Despite publishing developments, Tansey believes that it is extraordinarily difficult to determine what will fundamentally tip the existing model. The author community still wants to publish in prestigious peer- reviewed print publications, and free alternatives have not decreased this demand.

"In fact, the infrastructure of scholarly publishing has not really been affected by the change in media formats for communicating scientific research," Tansey says.

Murkier still are the communities of STM specialists who share information in an electronic forum. The information may be text messages, posted research results, or some combination of data and communications. To give one example of a field that exploits non-print publishing tools, consider the field of mereology, a branch of statistical analysis.

Zbigniew Michalewicz, founder of NuTech Solutions, Inc., states, "If anyone wants to know anything about the current developments in an advanced field of mathematics like mereology, one has to know whom to talk to online, the important Web sites, and what discussion groups are used by the specialists in the field."

Certain fields move too fast for peer-reviewed print publications to keep the experts informed.

Emerging from the disordered state of STM publishing is a churning container of superheated compounds. The interactions are often chaotic with regions of stability and others of near instantaneous change. No one knows how to control or anticipate the reactions. It is not even clear if the pace of change is slowing, accelerating, or stabilizing. The uncertainty principle, once confined to subatomic observations, now applies to STM. In fact, STM publishing can blur into business start-up support.

Nature or Nurture

Nature, the respected journal produced by Nature Publishing Group, introduced a portal for STM would-be bio-entrepreneurs. The portal offers a resource for researchers who hope to commercialize their research.

nature publishing group

NPG intends to deliver online information that is "authoritative, independent advice provided by experts and industry insiders." The site blends technology and business. Users will find information about building a business, entrepreneurship, intellectual property, and negotiating and deal making. NPG intends to offer "toolkits" that will offer advice about patents, business planning, technology valuation, and the expectations of venture capitalists. A complementary service is Bio E News, offering information about successful entrepreneurs. NPG may delve into the venture capital and business start-up consulting world.

STM publishers usually do not offer "how to profit from your research" services. However, other sources do. U.S., Canadian, British, and French governments offer Web sites and departments ready and somewhat eager to help fire the turbines of revenue, taxation, and employment. For those looking for the comfort of academe, universities' technology transfer departments are ready to help faculty and alumnae leverage their research, discoveries, or innovations.

One good example of a successful blending of investment and management consulting is "The Cambridge Gateway Fund" ( and It invests predominantly in companies with global reach, that are connected to the eastern region of the United Kingdom. The company's interests include information and communications technologies, and the life sciences. CGG is part of the NW Brown Group.

Despite the reduction of available venture capital, STM entrepreneurs in need of funds have options. Also In the U.K., Merlin Biosciences (London, UK) is a venture capital and consulting company focused on life sciences. The company has approximately 400 million in its three funds: The Merlin Biosciences Fund, Finsbury Life Sciences Investment Trust, and The Merlin Fund. In France, Paris-based Sofinnova Partners in Paris offers similar helping hands to STM entrepreneurs. For U.S. researchers can solicit interested in the U.S., the Johnson & Johnson Development Corporation or JJDC is, the venture capital arm of Johnson & Johnson. Like the other venture-focused firms, its professionals combine the types of services now on offered from NPG.

As the NPG portal gains users, one expects other STM publishers to introduce similar services. "Me-too" product innovation is not unknown in the STM publishing community. For those looking for communities, three useful resources are The CoWorking Institute's Web site, the LISTSERV communities L-Soft, and Communities of Practice.

Reinventing Advice from Peers

Author-researcher communities have existed for many years as offering formal and informal services. Among the best known are is Reed-Elsevier's Engineering Village, an online information service for comprehensive interdisciplinary engineering research. The present service, now in Version 2, is greatly expanded and features a wide range of content, communication services, document delivery, and research services.

Engineering Information's Engineering Village was a pioneer in pioneered community-based information services. The service has been refined over the years into a smoothly functioning online environment for those interested in a range of hard engineering disciplines. This fee-based service offers personalized e-mail alerts and saved search histories. The online search offers Google-like simplicity and expert search options. Searches may be combined and saved. Users may select output formats, and the retrieved data may be viewed, printed, saved, downloaded or e-mailed. Ei supports open links to online public access catalogs, as well as links to intranet-accessible resources. Fee-based custom research services are also available from Ei's cadre of information professionals or and licensed engineers.

Another Elsevier property is ChemWeb, a portal and community for chemists, which became available in April 1997. It has rapidly developed into one of the largest online chemical communities in the world.

Reed-Elsevier continues to innovate and is pushing the boundaries of traditional online information retrieval with more interactive services. The community approach to online searching may well be the key to Reed-Elsevier's unrolling of a range of STM environments that provide rich intellectual resources, plus the immediacy of the online interactions with people who share similar interests. Unlike the wild and woolly world of Yahoo! groups, the Reed-Elsevier brings more control to its community services.

Thomson, Wolters-Kluwer, and VNU have similar initiatives, but Reed-Elsevier is riding a strong, healthy horse in the engineering, medical, and chemical sectors.

Do-It-Yourself Collaboration

What if an established STM information online service does not support real-time collaboration? For the computer literate researcher, there are options.

Groove Networks, helped with an injection of Microsoft Corporation millions, allows researchers in a pharmaceutical company to interact with colleagues in laboratories on the other side of the world.

Smaller research facilities can use products from such firms as 4Team Corporation. For a few hundred dollars, Microsoft Outlook can be used as a functional collaboration tool ( For those without any budget or financial resources, Yahoo! offers a robust groups and collaboration service. With These types of tools allow geographically dispersed researchers ways to link up and share information. A directory of Yahoo! Groups is located at

Price Cuts?

There is considerable concern about the cost of STM information. The tired example trotted out at library conferences is Elsevier's Tetrahedron Letters that costs $8,000US. Deep price cuts in specialist, peer-reviewed publications are not likely any time soon.

Late in 2002, Morgan Stanley Equity Research Europe issued Scientific Publishing: Knowledge is Power on the scientific technical and medical publishing market. The main point of the study is that prices of STM information can go up and a core of loyal subscribers will pay the bill. In the jargon of the economist, STM pricing is inelastic.

Mainstream STM publishers, according to the Morgan Stanley report, since 1986 pushed the average price of a journal up by 215 percent while the number of journals purchased has fallen by only 5.1 percent. [cited by UKSG Serials eNews].

The Morgan Stanley report seems to say that mainstream STM publishers are not going to collapse any time soon. In fact, some publishers can look forward to a relatively bright financial outlook. Click here to view the article.

Inelastic, of course, is good news for the big STM publishers and bad news for librarians and those who like to read. Writing in the August 2001 Journal of Electronic Publishing, Alison Bucholz offered this observation: "Electronic publishing is booming: the number of peer-reviewed electronic journals increased well over 570 times between 1991 and 2000. While worldwide output of information resources has increased dramatically, the research library is purchasing a smaller and smaller proportion of the available universe." Click here to view the article.

A New Journal Format: Links and Collaboration

But something other than high prices is driving innovations in blogs, hybrid portals, and community-based online services. The use of the Internet as an STM publishing medium continues to gain momentum because it offers new information dissemination options. For those clever enough to exploit its cost-slashing features, new information services can be used to provide useful options to researchers.

Dr. Wendy Warr, a consultant with a large practice in chemical and pharmaceutical companies, said, "New STM forms are appearing." She points to the January 2003 issue of The Journal of Digital Information or JoDI.

JoDI is an electronic journal published only via the Web and currently free to users thanks to support from the British Computer Society and Oxford University Press. Like the NPG initiative, JoDI may well point to a future form of the electronic STM journal. The January 2002 issue was cast as hypertext and linking, not traditional STM essay style. JoDI's editors had solicited "articles" in the form of notes then were then linked together to create an interactive discussion of a topic. The result is available at

With the proliferation of communities, Web logs, electronic mail, and other tools, the concept of a trail of evidence becomes more interesting. Who originated an idea? Are observations and speculations posted in a newsgroup the first public proof of an innovation? In a dynamic electronic forum discussion hosted by a major STM publisher, who owns the discussion's content?

Change and More Change

What's clear is that the richer STM communications environment may be used to prove or disprove a prior art claim. The Rochester decision may give some researchers pause. For most, the "eternally self-reproducing inflation" of STM will continue.

One senior executive of an STM company with a range of for-fee online services tellingly notes, "I really don't feel qualified to comment on new sources, I'm afraid."

Mike Tansey said, "Important new services are the USPTO, Espacenet, and some of the other important scientific sites, Biomednet central, the Scientist, the MIT newswire." He continued, "I think there is a distinction between free and paid [information] services. One weakness of some of the Web services is a lack of comprehensiveness and in some cases questionable integrity; for example, paid-placement [information]."

One conclusion seems obvious: the new STM communication models are going to fuel not just innovation, but also controversy and litigation.

Traditional STM publishers have a pivotal and potentially lucrative role to play going forward. Will these flagship firms drive forward and fuel research? Will these organizations retain a conservative, print-centric view of STM information delivery? Harry Collier, a former publishing executive and organizer of one of the world's foremost chemical information events, answered that question bluntly: "Alternative sources available via the Web are going to create a growing problem for the traditional STM publishers."

Change, therefore, is the one constant in STM information with a focus on a payoff for the many stakeholders: researchers, publishers, scholars, associations, and companies.

Arnold Information Technology

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