The Future of Scientific Journals

19 July 2009

Interview with

Emilie Marcus, Editor-in-Chief, Cell

Chris - The way that scientific discoveries get presented and published is about to undergo a big change: this week, in fact.  For hundreds of years scientists have been writing up their findings and then publishing them in journals.  These were effectively big science magazines and when the internet came along, many journals began to publish the material online that they were also putting into the printed edition.  The problem is that the online environment isn't necessarily the same as the printed environment.  So now Emilie Marcus, the Editor-in-Chief of Cell, one of the world's biggest science journals, is this week going to launch what they've dubbed 'the article of the future.'  It's effectively a whole new way of presenting information and she's with us now.  Hello, Emilie.

Steacie Science and Engineering Library at York UniversityEmilie -   Hi, Chris.

Chris -   Welcome to the Naked Scientists.  Why do we need to change what we're doing at the moment?  What's wrong with just putting up a facsimile edition of your printed papers on the web for scientists and doctors to download?

Emilie -   Well, I guess, there's not necessarily something wrong with it.  I think the current format, as you said, was developed for a print environment and is very effective for that at communicating information.  But the bottom line is now we do have all the functionalities that an online environment can add to what one can do in print and really enhance the usability of the article.  It's kind of like going to a movie these days and all the previews are in colour and with sound and full surround and then you get to the movie and it still a silent [black and white film].  I mean, there's nothing wrong with the silent black and white films but you can really use the new technologies that you have to improve the article, structure and form of online environments.

Chris -   Indeed.  I mean, when I'm trying to read papers that I'm going to talk about here on the Naked Scientists, the scroll wheel on my mouse does get a lot of use going up and down in the papers.  What are you going to do to make your papers much more engaging and user-friendly on the internet then?

Emilie -   Yes, so the two main points that we're trying to address with this first release of the article and feature prototypes are -  one; helping users more quickly identify which papers they want to read.  So, for that, we've added in the front more forms of summary of the papers.  So, in addition to the traditional text abstract that's there, there is now also a graphical pictorial summary of what's in the paper and there are audio-visual interviews with the author that summarizes what's in the papers.  So, depending on what you're preferred mechanism of figuring out which papers you want to read is you now have more options in going to the paper...

Chris -   So the days of having to actually buy a second computer monitor, so you can display them more without going keep flicking backwards and forwards.  You're saying those were over?

Emilie -   Yes.

Chris -   But talk us through the interface a little bit more because I know you started but-  so, as I'm reading through the paper and I see, say, a little bit of information that I think very interesting.  I'd like to drill down a little bit more about say, a particular reference.  Can you do that?

Emilie -   Yes, so all of the information now hyperlinks to the references and likewise, you can start from a the reference then go back to figure out where in the paper that reference is discussed.  So the entire text is much more interconnected in the entire layouts is more interconnected and there is also a way to navigate through it based on, basically, a picture.  So, you can look at a picture, an illustration and say, "Okay, this is a part of the paper I'm interested in," and click on it and it will take you directly to that part of the paper.  So you no longer have to sort of start at the beginning as you did in the print environment and read from the beginning through, to find what you want.

Chris -   Now presumably, you've tested this out on volunteer guinea pig scientists and another potential users.  What do they say about it?

Emilie -   Yes, we have had our team of guinea pigs.  So far we've done user-testing and all of the responses have been incredibly enthusiastic.  They liked the idea of trying to rethink from scratch how to present the information and the scientific article online.  We really took a sort of bottom-up approach, let's figure out this is the information you want to get across, you have all this ability online, what's the best way to structure it and not just take what work can print and transfer it?   They really liked that approach, they liked what we've come up with.  They had some very good suggestions for additional features we could add. So it will be an ongoing evolving project to continue to develop an article for an online environment that has more functionality than in print.

Chris -   Now obviously, this must involve additional investment on the part of your journal, in order to make this much richer online experience.  So, how are you going to make it pay?

Emilie -   Well, actually the investment comes up, I think, in designing the prototypes.  Today, scientists put a huge amount of effort into preparing articles for publication in a print format, both in terms of the text itself and the creation of all the figures.  So there already is a lot of effort that goes in to producing a paper.  I think with this new type of presentation, what types of information the authors have to provide to us will change but the total amount and workload involved won't.  So I think now that we set up the expectations and guidelines for what we need as publishers to be able to present the articles this way, the authors will supply us with some different types of figures etcetera, but once the transition is through the actual workload won't change.  There should not be any net increase in cost to produce it in this way.

Chris -   So we can all look forward to a much better online environment and we understand Emilie, it's your birthday as well today.  So, thank you very much for joining us on your birthday.  You can go and have that glass of champagne now.  Thank you very much.  That was Emilie Marcus who's the Editor-in-Chief of Cell, where they're rolling out a whole brand new way of putting information onto the internet in a much more engaging fashion, so that it should be much easier to get access to that information and then learn from it. 

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