I would like to suggest that technology now offers a chance to re-evaluate the very foundations on which the dissemination of scientific chemical information is based, including the peer review mechanism itself and how the access to and archival of these new media will be managed. Some of these issues have already been discussed in mainstream chemistry publications. Some recent models for electronic chemistry journals that have appeared in the last year are discussed in the present article, along with one scenario for how journals may evolve in the future.
A rather different use for electronic mail discussion lists and on-line preprints has been the discussion of proposed international standards. Chemistry has a long tradition of standards bodies, exemplified by the IUPAC organisation. It became apparent to us that with the very rapid evolution of the use of the Internet for the dissemination of chemical information, that specific standards in this area would become essential. The body through which Internet standards are first discussed and ultimately ratified is the IETF, or Internet Engineering Task force. Proposed standards are first published electronically via the IETF, and then thoroughly discussed and refined by e-mail. If and when a consensus is reached, the final draft standards are then published electronically as so called "Standard-track RFCs", the final process involving formal ratification at physically convened IETF meetings. An example of such an attempt to propose and discuss a standard for labelling the content of data files for transmission on the Internet known as "chemical MIME" is currently in progress. Not the least valuable aspect is that arranging international standards can be made into a low cost but nevertheless a widely discussed process. It remains to be seen whether the final process will require formal publication in a conventional chemistry journal before it becomes widely accepted by the community.
|Project or Journal||Uniform Resource Locator|
|ACS Electronic Editions||http://pubs.acs.org/acselec/oncom.html|
|The CORE Project||http://www.oclc.org:5046/projects/core/|
|The CLIC Project||http://www.ch.ic.ac.uk/clic/|
|Chem. Physics Reprints||http://www.chem.brown.edu/chem-ph.html|
|J. Mol. Mod.||http://derioc1.organik.uni-erlangen.de/info/JMOLMOD/jmolinfo.html|
|J. Comp. Aided Mol. Design||http://wucmd.wustl.edu/jcamd/jcamd.html|
|J. Biological Chemistry||http://www-jbc.stanford.edu/jbc/|
|Bull. Chem. Soc. Japan||http://www.syp.toppan.co.jp:8082/bcsjstart.html|
|Trends Anal. Chem.||http://www.elsevier.nl/freeinfo/trac/Menu.html|
|Elec. Conf. Trends. Organic Chem.||http://www.ch.ic.ac.uk/ectoc/|
The technical challenge of converting the graphical and tabular content of a printed journal to electronic form is substantial. Several major projects already under way (Table 1) include the Tulip consortium with a focus on journals relating to materials science, the Red Sage library system which has a focus on medicine and biology and the Core Project involving the American Chemical Society. The intent with these particular projects is to preserve to the maximum extent the congruence between the printed and the electronic versions, adopting much sophisticated proprietary software technology to ensure that the on-screen version preserves the "page integrity", "readability" and "browsability" of the original printed form. These experiments also tacitly acknowledge the pre-eminence of the printed version of the journal, with availability of the electronic version often lagging some months behind the former. Smaller scale projects directly relating to chemistry are on-line versions of the Journal of Computer Aided Molecular Design, the Journal of Biological Chemistry, and the Bulletin of the Chemical Society of Japan which appear more or less concurrently with the printed versions, whilst offering essentially the same content if not the same appearance (Table 1) This article itself appears in both a printed version and a freely available on-line form, although this latter mode currently represents only a small proportion of the articles in the journal.
The requirement for page integrity, which is often promoted more by publishers and perhaps librarians than by authors, nevertheless raises some important and profound issues. I would like argue that the "page" should be regarded as a legacy from the days of using paper and does not represent a "future-proof" means of delivering information. The "page" does not necessarily always serve the very best interests of science and of chemistry in particular, and does nothing to extend the concept of a journal into something more akin to a piece of experimental apparatus, to be used alongside other laboratory equipment. To explore such concepts, one must look at journals that are uniquely electronic.
If one accepts that paper can be subservient to electronic materials, i.e. that it may not be possible to "print" 100% of the content of an electronic journal, then a range of exciting and innovative possibilities open up. At its simplest, one can include dynamic materials such as video clips and audio, an approach being extensively investigated for electronic "multimedia" books and courseware. Such material is clearly oriented towards presenting the author's point of view, and does not always allow much interactivity by the reader. Of greater fundamental importance is the concept of linking supplemental materials into the written word or image which can be directly used (interacted with) and re-applied by the reader. In this category, I would include 3D molecular coordinates as an integral component of the journal, rather than being regarded merely as supplemental information available from a separate and often inconvenient source. With a simply mouse press, the reader can acquire for example a semantically correct and potentially rotatable image of a molecule. In turn, this data could be used to initiate a molecular modelling session, a database search or other "value added" component. These concepts were demonstrated in the recent on-line ECTOC conference, part of the "CLIC Consortium" initiative to produce an electronic version of the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Chemical Communications.
Other applications which have been demonstrated include live "mathematical notebooks" to allow symbolic equations to be instantly useable and if needed verified, spectroscopic data and interpretations, reaction search queries, and a diverse set of three dimensional models described in a new symbolism called virtual reality modelling language. Not only can symbolic data be made available as part of the electronic journal, but access to remote network resources can be included, including on-line instrumentation and other shared resources. Up to date usage and access statistics for the article can be calculated on-the-fly, hyperglossaries of structured information  can be interrogated, and even wavefunctions could be supplied for user defined molecules. Such extensive integration of chemical resources into electronic journals will bring with it an urgent need to define standards for structuring and defining elements of chemical content within documents using descriptive markup languages such as SGML (Standard Generalised Markup Language)  to enable sensible indexing, searching and ultimately the long term archiving of such content. Once the semantic content is present in a properly structured manner, the problem of long term archival is no longer associated with questions such as "how long does the CD-ROM medium last" but of whether the content can be translated from the present to future generations of the languages used to encode the content. Such issues are amongst the greatest challenges facing electronic chemistry journals over the next decade.
Another important aspect of electronic journals is the degree to which "look-and-feel" can be incorporated. For example, Adobe Acrobat allows the author's and the publisher's style to dominate over what the reader might wish to impose. Formalisms such as HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), itself a particular implementation of SGML , allow an opposing point of view that much of the style should be imposed at the point of reading rather than of writing. Perhaps the real solution is that both should be enabled. Much progress is being made in defining international standard style-sheets which could be downloaded as part of the so called header component of an HTML document. The reader could then choose which aspects of the original style, and which aspects of their own preferences, to impose upon the document. Of course, this brings with it new problems. If the style in which a document is presented influences the interpretation the reader makes of the content, then which is the definitive version? Nonetheless, such new aspects as variable style represent a radical departure from conventional journals, and it remains to be seen whether such flexibility helps or merely confuses the readers, and whether publishers are prepared to allow readers to redefine the carefully nurtured "look and feel" of their journals.