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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. …