Societies Should Provide The Journals That Scientists Need

Editor's Note: In a career spanning nearly 50 years, William J. Whelan--now a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Miami--has published some 250 research papers and edited more than 20 scholarly books, his main interest being the biogenesis of polysaccharides and action patterns of the polysaccharide enzymes of metabolism. Throughout his career, Whelan also has served as editor and developer of more

Apr 18, 1994
William Whelan

Editor's Note: In a career spanning nearly 50 years, William J. Whelan--now a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Miami--has published some 250 research papers and edited more than 20 scholarly books, his main interest being the biogenesis of polysaccharides and action patterns of the polysaccharide enzymes of metabolism. Throughout his career, Whelan also has served as editor and developer of more than a dozen scientific journals, including the Biochemical Journal, Trends in Biochemical Sciences (TIBS), and FEBS Letters, a publication of the Federation of European Biochemical Societies. Since 1987, he has served as the first editor-in-chief of the prestigious FASEB Journal, published by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

Eugene Garfield, publisher of The Scientist and founder of the Philadelphia-based Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), has known Whelan since the 1950s. "My association with Bill goes back to a FASEB meeting in Atlantic City," he recalls, "where I was handing out sample copies of an early Current Contents issue on the boardwalk. Over the years, I've come to know Bill as a unique entrepreneur. He chose not to personally benefit financially from his journal-publishing endeavors. I certainly do not denigrate publishers who, like myself, chose the for-profit route, but Bill's idealistic commitment to journal publishing is commendable and all too rare."

In this essay, Whelan tells about several failures by professional societies to meet the ever-changing needs of their members. "In that connection," says Garfield, "I'm reminded of an effort about 20 years ago by a group of biochemistry journal editors to place a moratorium on the launch of new publications. Needless to say, this misplaced hubris was doomed, and new journals have kept coming out. All dynamic research fields will eventually `twig,' just as biochemistry and genetics developed into molecular biology; that comes inevitably with the growth of established disciplines.

"Bill Whelan is astute enough to recognize that scientific societies, while inherently conservative, need to overcome their natural resistance to change."

A version of this essay originally appeared under the title "Publish or Perish" in FASEB Journal (7:1423, December 1993). It is presented here with FASEB's permission.

In the early 1960s, a proposal was made to the American Chemical Society (ACS) by some members of its Division of Carbohydrate Chemistry to publish a journal devoted to that subject. The society, presumably through its committee on publications, turned down the proposal.

The proponents of the publication were nevertheless convinced that they had a worthwhile proposition, and a commercial publisher eventually was found. The journal Carbohydrate Research proved to be highly successful. Now having published its 250th volume, it would have been an adornment to ACS.

I learned of what happened because I had been invited to join the editorial board of Carbohydrate Research. I declined, however, because by that stage in my career I had decided to work only for publications produced by scientific organizations--societies and so forth--and recommended that such a publishing umbrella be pursued despite the initial rebuff by ACS. But my recommendation was to no avail.

Two decades later--in the spring of 1983--I wrote the prospectus for a review journal on behalf of the Committee on Genetic Experimentation of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU).

Again, my recommendations were to no avail, and the project "escaped." I will not expand on what happened, but suffice it to say that when a journal of the same name was brought out in January 1985 by a commercial publisher, the launch was later described as the most successful in that publisher's history.

I have had a certain amount of experience in launching journals on behalf of scientific organizations. I also have been the secretary general of three international biochemical organizations of societies and national academies, with the task, among others, of raising funds to support their many worthy aims, such as fellowships, symposia, workshops, and lectureships. I soon came to realize that there is a limit to the amount of money that can be cajoled from members, industry, and government. To raise more money, one has to go out and earn it. And what better way than by royalties or profit-sharing from publications?

It is my thesis that scientific journal publication should mainly be in the hands of scientific organizations, thereby ensuring built-in continuity, quality control, independence, and the highest standards of reporting. This is not to say that these attributes are lacking in the entrepreneurial efforts of private publishers, but there can be no guarantee.

What I have come to believe represents, in most cases, the best of both worlds is the journal whose copyright is owned by a scientific organization but that is published, promoted, and managed by an expert commercial publisher under an agreement that provides an income to both parties (ideally, profit-sharing). In such arrangements, the copyright holder is free to change the publisher, such opportunity to be considered at the end of each contract period. When sufficiently confident and experienced, the scientific organization may become its own publisher. The Company of Biologists in Cambridge, U.K., is to my mind the model of this type of publisher.

It has been my privilege to have been involved in launching journals that have reflected these attributes and have achieved the successes expected of publications of scientific organizations. So far, the three most successful--because they are the oldest members of the stable--are the European Journal of Biochemistry, FEBS Letters, and TIBS, the first two published for FEBS and the latter for the then International Union of Biochemistry.

The first two helped put the fledgling FEBS on the map. They brought the European biochemical community together and their combined income return to FEBS must by now, in dollars, run into eight figures. For this reason, FEBS, a regional organization, is wealthier than the worldwide International Union of Bio- chemistry and Molecular Biology.

Why is this kind of success story not more common? True, there are already many such examples, but in the publication explosion of the last two decades, especially in biology, the pace has been set by the private, entrepreneurial publisher--and generally to the detriment of the optimal progress of science. The proliferation of low-circulation, high-priced, subject-overlapping journals with no quality control is allowed to happen because when it comes to launching new journals, societies are their own worst enemies.

Their publication committees procrastinate. They are very conservative. Such committees need only one or two members to say that the world does not need another journal and the project founders. The accepted default position is to do nothing. But if there is anything in the idea, you can be sure, as was the case with Carbohydrate Research and others, that the journal will be off and running in private hands, a valuable piece of property--something that might have been a real service to science, that might have burnished the organization's image, and provided a financial return in support its aims--lost to the society forever.

I have written here of the wall of opposition that I and my colleague Prakash Datta (respectively the secretary general and treasurer of FEBS) encountered when, in 1967, we proposed the publication of FEBS Letters. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to have given up. Had we done so, FEBS would have been immeasurably poorer.

So, my plea is that scientific organizations rethink their traditional conservatism in launching new periodicals. If the project is worth doing, it will be done by someone--if not the organization, then by a private publisher. Take good care of your intellectual property and do not let it escape to the private sector by default, lack of vision, or negligence. Once lost, the opportunity may never return. You owe it to your members to protect, enhance, defend, and exploit those property rights.

We owe it to our colleagues to facilitate exploration of new vistas of scientific communication.

William J. Whelan is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Miami School of Medicine, Miami, Fla. 33136.