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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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September 26, 2007

Expensive Reading

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Posted by Derek

I had the opportunity the other day to take a look at the statistics for journal use from the library where I work. It’s the time of the year when they figure out which journals they need to subscribe to, as opposed to just paying per-document fees for individual papers.

That means that several factors go into the decision. The first is usage of the journal. If a lot of papers are downloaded from a given title, odds are that it’ll be cheaper to subscribe. Unless, of course, the subscription rate is completely exorbitant – but that’s certainly not unheard of in the academic publishing world, is it? So in those cases, you’d be better off paying per paper – unless the journal makes that so expensive that a subscription starts to look like a bargain. It’s a balancing act.

Several trends were apparent. The big-name big-impact journals are impossible to ignore, and if you’re a serious research site, they’re impossible not to subscribe to. You can’t have pretenses to keeping up with the latest results if you don’t have Nature, Science, Cell, and the like coming in. And you can’t ignore titles like the Journal of Biological Chemistry, either – sure, they publish eight zillion papers per year, but they get an awful lot of things that didn’t make it into those top-of-the-heap titles, and a lot of good stuff appears there.

In my particular field, the American Chemical Society journals come out pretty well. The subscriptions aren’t cheap, but they aren’t in the white-knuckle range of some of the more commercial publishers. And they get a lot of use – well, the main titles do, anyway. As for the other chemistry journals, Angewandte Chemie isn’t too cheap itself, but it’s also in the “unignorable” category. For a drug research shop, you can say the same thing about Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry Letters. There’s a lot of junk in there, but there’s also a lot of intelligence about what your competitors are up to – or were up to a while ago, anyway.

Who comes out looking bad? Well, I don’t know about other research sites, but our figures didn’t look good for either the “Expert Opinion” publications or the Bentham journals (“Current Whatever Whatever”). The latter had an especially large disconnect between the number of paper requests and the corresponding cost of a full subscription, which fits with my own experience. And yours?

Comments (11) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. MTK on September 26, 2007 9:35 PM writes...


How closely does your library's data match impact figures, at least on a relative basis for a given field? I've always wondered what the correlation between citations , impact figure, and actual usage is.

I'm not a librarian, information specialist or whatever the occupation is called these days, but any ideas how many subscription packages are bundled? Most times it seems that if your library subscribes to Angewandte they'll also have all the other Wiley journals, no matter how insignificant. So even if you request a particular journal, it may not be available without subscribing to a bunch of other ones also.

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2. Reader on September 27, 2007 6:02 AM writes...

I'd be curious to know how many journals are sent for free. I've received Nature Biotech., Nature Drug Discov. Rev., and Nature Method for free for almost 2 years now. Every time I get these "Do you want to review your free subscription" flier from Nature Blah I wonder why anyone would bother ticking the NO box and mail it back. Is any other publisher - besides Nature - known to send freebies?

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3. Jonathan on September 27, 2007 8:59 AM writes...

Reader, there's a world of difference between a free personal subscription, and a site license for electronic access. You (personally) might a free paper sub, your institution/company is not going to get free access to the journal and all it's archives, for xxx many users, for nothing.

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4. Reader on September 27, 2007 10:41 AM writes...

Jonathan, you're absolutely right, no electronic access and no archives.
I was just curious to know how many copies of scientific journals (in this case from Nature Pub.) are send for free (no doubt the high subscription rate make up for these free copies) as a proportion of overall circulation. This is of course not specific to scientific publications; newspapers are know to give away unpaid copies in order to boost circulation (and advertising rates).
My other point was that, to my knowledge, only Nature Publishing seem to be doing this on such a large scale. But maybe I'm wrong...

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5. Curious Wavefunction on September 27, 2007 11:01 AM writes...

Some of the Bentham articles are quite good actually. Especially some from the Curr. Rev. in Med. Chem. I remember a good p38-alpha inhibitors article.

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6. david on September 27, 2007 11:53 AM writes...

Current Opinion and the like are much more used if there's a clinical development group

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7. Purple Kangaroo on September 27, 2007 1:52 PM writes...

I would like to expand on what CW wrote. There are good articles in most journals IF the authors put the appropriate article in the appropriate journal. As an example, if the journal is Current Reviews in Whatever, one would hope that the content was current and a review. Oftentimes you see the same crap from ten years earlier or a very focused, self-obsessed article with little value. The blame also lies with the editors and publishers as well.

Now, Expert Opinion in Whatever, I have a pet peeve about. I don’t know if this is still the case, but I most often ran across articles where the expert was someone I know was not such, or there was no opinion provided. This is just a poorly titled journal. This was exacerbated by an episode in large pharma where I used to work, whereby a guy in my group proposed to write such an article in EOTP. I explained to him that we had just started to work in this area, that he was by no definition an expert, there was little new, and that it would look bad overall. He proceeded to sucker upper management into the idea, whip together essentially a review of already reviewed material, and submit it without proper signoffs. It was obvious he was just padding his resume, but since he had a visible position within the ACS, the company just let it go. I don’t expect this is an uncommon occurrence.


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8. Chrispy on September 27, 2007 2:46 PM writes...

I miss going to the library. It used to be that I'd go to the library and cruise the new journals, sometimes picking up some random one which caught my eye. The Xerox machines were always going full tilt, and you could tell the expert Xeroxers since they would be copying from back to front and their timing was perfect -- the machine never paused.

Nowadays most of my journal reading is confined to perusing email TOC lists and pdfs. I rarely know what the covers look like. I get a couple of print copies for old times' sake but rarely need to go to the library anymore. Yeah, it's my own fault because I could still go -- it is still there -- but I don't need to.

And by the looks of the bank of largely-abandoned Xerox machines, neither does anyone else!

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9. MolecularGeek on September 27, 2007 3:10 PM writes...

Bentham and Current Opinion are fiendishly expensive even for academic use (IMHO), but now that I am affiliated with a site that gets most of them (except for Current Opinion in Drug Design and Delivery, oddly enough), I really wouldn't want to be without them. I've found them to be a relatively good way to get up to speed on topics that I don't have a lot of background in; many reviews do this of course, but not so many of them are oriented towards making new molecules. Yes, you can usually get them via interlibrary loan or pay-per-access, and that may make better financial sense, but it does put a limit to the amount of serendipity you can find in browsing the TOC of the issue once you get the reference you needed. I just hope to not need to get used to not having these titles anymore.


(Also, I've found a nice program for managing all those PDF reprints everyone seems to accumulate. If any mac types are interested, ping me and I'll send details)

"Only the strong-willed, the hurried, and the foolish close the reference book at the end of the search that it was originally opened for"

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10. Jose on September 27, 2007 5:09 PM writes...

"Only the strong-willed, the hurried, and the foolish close the reference book at the end of the search that it was originally opened for"

I really HATE the one-pdf-per-article format for this very reason. You have to *know* somthing looks interesting enough to open the file. No browsing allowed.

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11. S Silverstein on October 4, 2007 1:33 PM writes...

I am an "information professional" (biomedical informatics) and ran the scientific libraries at MRL until the mass layoffs of Nov. 2003.

Am curious if your organizations have technology that provides targeted scientific articles in an automated and customizable fashion, ideally full text.

A chart on the impact of implementation of this type of system can be seen on slide 27-28 of this presentation: link (zipped powerpoint, 4 Mb)

I think of the increase not so much as improvement. Rather, I look at the prior year's "empty space" and think of it as "lost opportunities."

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