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Author: William A. Stein
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Proceedings of the
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Second ICSU-UNESCO International Conference on
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Electronic Publishing in Science
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held in association with CODATA, IFLA and ICSTI
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at UNESCO House, Paris 20-23 February 2001
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Is electronic publishing being used in the best interests of science?
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The Publisher's view.�
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Derk Haank, Chief Executive Officer, Elsevier Science
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Received 2 April 2001
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Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
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I must admit I've had a few difficult slots at presentations and
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seminars before but I've never acted after the concluding remarks of
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the Chairman so apparently I can have no impact whatsoever on any
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conclusions from this conference. Some people might find that very
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reassuring. I have been asked to answer the question: Is electronic
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publishing being used in the best interests of scientists? I am happy
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to do so and I would also use this opportunity to give a few personal
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observations on where the industry is going and where we should be
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going. I hope it will not be too boring for you at the end of this
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conference.
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The answer to the question is: Not yet, but it will be. Electronic
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publishing is being used but not to its fullest extent yet, but it is
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absolutely great. It's the best thing since sliced bread that could
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happen to the scientific community. I can get very excited and carried
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away by that because it is fascinating what is already possible and,
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even more fascinating is what will be possible in a few years' time. I
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think we have only seen the beginning but once we are further down the
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road in a couple of years, I honestly think that electronic publishing
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will allow the literature to play a different role in the whole
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scientific research process and that should be in the interests of
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everybody - developed and developing countries. I don't want to seem
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obnoxious - but I do think that there is room for improvement in the
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research process. There is a lot of "reinventing of the wheel" still
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going on within countries and also in different countries. Admittedly
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I was not a very good researcher - that's probably the reason I landed
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in this job in the first place - but it is from my recollection of my
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own experience that we did not check the literature every day. We did
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a lot of literature research, wrote about it, and at the end of the
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day we looked for a few references from the official literature to
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beef up the results. You can say "that was you and that is why you
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were no longer allowed at university", but I would suspect there is
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more of that going on. If we can develop a system where literature is
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at the desktop of everybody, available 24 hours a day, that should
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greatly enhance the role literature plays in the research
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process. That is the way we are going and that is the way our company
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is committed and you should judge all our actions and policies in that
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light. I am happy to explain a little bit what we are trying to do,
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but let me first make a remark about commercial publishing, because
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sometimes we have been treated not as suspects but as already
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convicted people. I was pleased to notice in the concluding remarks of
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the Chairman that this conference has taken a much more balanced view
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than I occasionally encounter.
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The issue "yes or no" for profit is not the big thing - it is about
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what kind of service do we deliver to the end-user, to the
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customer. If we get very hung up on an almost religious tone like
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"Thou shalt not make a profit from science publishing", I don't think
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that is very productive. I am personally not ashamed of making a
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profit and I would like to make more profit instead of less profit to
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be honest, but I would be ashamed if people were to say "you are not
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delivering a good service to the community" and that is what we are
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trying to do. To be fair, I am now in this position for two-and-a-half
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years, I do think there was a disconnection between the profits of
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some commercial publishers and the service we delivered to the
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community. Let me start on that note. But there is no use crying over
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spilled milk - just milk new milk. That is what we are doing at the
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moment. We are trying to enter into this bright new future and
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meanwhile correcting some of the issues from the past. Because the
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main problem from the past, in my opinion, is not the high price of a
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single journal subscription. That is a symptom but not the basic
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problem.
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The basic problem is - and it is also the reason why these single
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items were so high - that fewer and fewer people took a subscription
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to the journal leaving the remaining customers to fund the whole bill
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of the system. That has gradually developed over many, many, many
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years and if you look back you would then wonder how is it possible,
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why was it not intervened before, but it is true. No journal started
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as a big journal. All journals start as small journals with thousands
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of subscribers. But with the explosion of scientific research,
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journals became bigger and bigger and the best journals became bigger
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more quickly than the poor journals. What happened is that prices went
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up, and I'll leave aside whether the price should have gone up as much
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as it did, but with every price increase you lose a few people on the
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edges who are marginally interested. I believe that first we lost all
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the students, then we lost the faculty staff, then we lost the
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marginally interested library, so we are now down to the hard core of
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big libraries normally very interested libraries but there are only a
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few of those in every field who have to fund the cost of the whole
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system and that leads to take prices of thousands of dollars per
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journal. Now, I think that for too long commercial publishers have
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accepted that if fewer people pay but they pay more, then the end
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result is the same. To me that is a false feeling of security because
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the main problem is that the accessibility to literature became less
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and less visibility means that in general the role literature plays
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diminishes, the journal becomes less important, is seen less and cited
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less, and ultimately has to be closed down. So, in my view the main
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problem is the visibility of the journals with only a few people
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paying the costs. To take the famous example of "Brain Research" which
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apparently costs $15,000 per annum, there are only a few hundred big
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institutes paying. Beyond that there is a very inefficient system of
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inter-library loan, document delivery, legal and illegal photocopying,
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with thousands of people using it without paying anything. This is not
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a very acceptable situation and we should be correcting that. I would
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not have known how to correct that in the paper world and I probably
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would not have taken this job because I don't like to start on an
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impossible mission: but I'm just lucky because the day I arrived
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electronic publishing broke through, and in my opinion electronic
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publishing will help us to solve all these problems in one go and do a
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lot more.
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Electronic publishing does many things but first let me tell you what
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it doesn't do. It does not lower the total cost of the system - the
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infrastructure costs. The fact that articles need to be written, need
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to be reviewed, need to be typeset and need to be archived, made
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accessible, open link, whatever - those costs, if anything, will
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increase and they will continue to increase. But what it does do is to
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dramatically lower the marginal costs of allowing access to, instead
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of 600 people, to 601 people. The extra cost of that is virtually nil
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and that means that we should be more creative in the business model
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in the future. I understand there has been some debate about
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differential pricing and is even one of the recommendations. In my
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opinion that is the way to go and we have started with it already.
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In developing the way we migrate our current paper customers we find
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that more and more customers get together through consortia. The
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result normally is that the existing customers keep on paying roughly
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the same as they did in the paper environment, but in return they get
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both paper and electronic and quite often more access to more journals
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only electronically. But they haven't lost out; they have gained more
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access. Typically, the consortium also has a few smaller players on
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board - small libraries that were previously very small customers to
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us or not customers at all - and they get the same access but at a
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lower price, which I think is the way to go. Also in our company we
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had lengthy debates - and I know that within consortia there are quite
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often debates - as to whether it is fair that University X has access
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to, say, a thousand journals and pays half a million dollars, whereas
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another university only pays $100,000 for exactly the same access? In
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my opinion that is completely justified. You could also say that the
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paper-pricing model was flawed. Why is it fair that a paper journal
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has a fixed price so that Los Alamos pays exactly the same as a
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university in Zimbabwe? I am not saying that we are deliberately
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changing one unfairness for another but let's not be too moral about
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these issues. Let's try to be practical because the problem with the
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paper model is that as prices went up the only people who took it, as
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I explained before, were the people who were very interested and
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normally also very big, leaving developing countries and small
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institutes always short-changed because although they might be
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interested in Brain Research they could not justify $15,000. If, in
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the electronic environment, we could for instance lower the price for
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existing customers from $15,000 to, say, $10,000 and have hundreds of
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small departments paying $1,000 each for unlimited access to Brain
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Research, I think we would all win. That is, in our opinion, the way
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to go. What we are basically doing is to say that you pay depending on
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how useful the publication is for you - estimated by how often you use
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it. That is something very different from paying by the drink. I do
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not believe that paying by the drink is a suitable model; it is
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cumbersome for us, but it is also cumbersome for our contract partners
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- the libraries and universities - and because, in science, the people
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who drink are not the people who are paying, it is a disastrous model
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as any bartender can tell you. So, we should have models where we make
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a deal with the university, the consortia or the whole country, where
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we say for this amount we will allow all your people to use our
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material, unlimited, 24 hours per day. And, basically the price then
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depends on a rough estimate of how useful is that product for you; and
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we can adjust it over time. It is a principle, which, in my view, is
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not immoral. We want to distinguish between big universities vs. small
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universities, corporate vs. universities, and maybe rich countries
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vs. developing countries. There is nothing wrong in that and any
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combination of the three, as long as people pay something for it,
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because I don't believe in giving it away for free. There is no such
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thing as a free lunch, as I was always told, and it only appears free
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for the end-user. This is appropriate but there are costs involved in
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the system, which somebody has to pay that I think are better done at
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a certain level per university, per country, etc. because then we have
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the best of all worlds. We have a very efficient system, where
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everybody who is even vaguely interested in the material has unlimited
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use. What more is required? We need organizations to run such a system
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which could be learned societies or groups of scientists or commercial
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publishers. It is up to us - the commercial publishers - to prove that
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we can provide a good service that justifies the price we want to
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charge in the future. And if we can't prove that, we will be out of
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business. It is as easy as that and we don't want to be out of
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business too since I still have a mortgage to pay. So that is a good
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incentive to keep on working on it.
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Now, enough about differential pricing. Let me say a few things on the
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way we see the products going. And that is what is really
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exciting. Taking one step back: two-and-a-half years ago when I came
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back to Elsevier Science, I found a company that was completely
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different from when I had left it 10 years before. Then it had a
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business model for journals - we launched 30 to 40 new journals a year
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and off we go. When I came back the company was in complete
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disarray. There was a combination of fear and excitement that we still
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have, but fortunately there is more excitement and less fear
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nowadays. There was fear because people did realize that things are
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changing and changing for good and for ever. That might mean that
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somebody could steal away our business - different players like the
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Microsofts of this world or the preprint servers or whatever. So there
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was fear among some people. But there was even more excitement because
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although we are a commercial company, don't be mistaken about that, we
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employ thousands of scientists who are very, very committed to
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scientific publishing and are very committed to the scientific
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world. They feel themselves to be part of that community, and they saw
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very quickly what electronic publishing could do for their role. They
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saw the prospect of getting the information to the desktop of people,
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of adding moving images in all kinds of colours, three dimensional
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pictures, multimedia, etc. So there was a lot more excitement than
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fear but the problem was that everybody was doing their own thing. I
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don't want to bore you with all organizational issues but it was a lot
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of hard work, I must admit - not for me but for my colleagues - to
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sort it all out and it provides a good raison d'�tre for the existence
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of commercial publishers. Because, if there ever was a role for
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commercial publishers it is now more than, say, 20 years ago. Although
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some people feel it has become easier because of electronic
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publishing, it has in fact become an awful lot more complicated and an
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awful lot more capital-intensive. At Elsevier Science last year we
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invested $30 million in electronic publishing activities. That is more
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than we invested between 1950 and 1980 combined. Even allowing for the
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fact that we are a big company, so we have probably wasted half of the
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money, it is still a lot of money to spend on electronic
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publishing. This is not a time for amateurs to get involved, with all
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due respect. It takes people who are committed, who are well funded
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and are in it for the long term. I have seen it in my own company:
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small publishing groups getting excited about Web servers and after
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three months they got bored because it is rather tedious. In
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electronic publishing, because you have to adhere to very strict
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protocols, it is not just exciting; it's a lot of hard work. It is
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tedious and at the same time intellectually challenging. It is nice
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but it is not something on the side. It is not something that I find
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is done effectively by the scientists themselves. I understand their
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feelings that because of the high journal prices they wanted to have a
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go at the commercial publishers. If that is your sole motivation, I
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think that you are in for a shock because it is a lot of hard work and
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is that really what you want to do? If you really want to do that,
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then come and work for us. But if you want to be a scientist stay away
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from it because you underestimate the amount of work, the funds and
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also the perseverance that is needed to make it work in the long
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term. But I see this as a cry for attention, by people irritated by
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the fact that the old system was not working as well as it should. Now
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it is up to us - the commercial publishers and learned societies - to
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prove that we can develop a service that is well run and delivers what
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it should be delivering. Then there is no need for these initiatives
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from the scientific community. It is ironic that the whole world is
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talking about out-sourcing and the academic community would in-source
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a tedious job like publishing. It is much easier and more appropriate
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to leave it to people who do it full time and who are not clever
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enough for academic research and end up in publishing.
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So, where do we see it going? What we have done to date is to complete
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the migration from the paper journals to an electronic database which
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contains all our journals with all articles as of 1995. That is 1.2
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million articles in the database covering all the 1,200 journals under
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the umbrella of Science Direct. What you find is, the more you have
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the more extras you want. There is no limit to what people want and
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researchers and librarians are almost human in that respect: they also
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want more and more. Whereas two years ago people said that there is no
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need for back files, now they scream for back files because they wish
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they could link to the old literature. Yes, that would be nice and it
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will be possible. We have embarked on a big investment that at
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Elsevier Science within five years we want all our stuff going back to
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Volume I, Issue 1 of all 1,200 journals. We want also a seamless link
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with the non-refereed material because those distinctions are becoming
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blurred: preprints, refereed material, there will be one seamless flow
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of material from what I would like to call the "academic workbench". I
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would like to see a situation where, the moment you start writing an
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article you do it in such a format that it is constantly linked with
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the official and unofficial literature and where you are pointed
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towards stuff that is of importance to you. So when you start writing
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your article, after a few sentences our product should direct towards
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an article that might be relevant. That is making more effective use
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of literature instead of first finishing your article and then going
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on your bike to the library. The publisher should be doing that work
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and providing pointers to that material. So we see preprints and
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official journals merging into one journal and we also see the
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refereed material being completely merged with everything that is out
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there on the Web because - and I have also picked it up from this
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conference - everybody believes there is a future for refereed
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material and certainly we do that as well, but you shall not live by
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refereed material alone. There is more out there and what we will do
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in Science Direct, in the new release that will be available in March,
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is to allow a search through our own database of all refereed material
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while at the same time searching for everything that is out there on
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the Web through a search engine we have developed that is specifically
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aimed for scientific purposes, because we all know that search engines
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do not search the whole Web, they only search what you ask them to
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do. So we have asked the search engine to search the Web for
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scientific material and whether that is universities, author websites,
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etc. it will all be made available so you can then compare the
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research results from the refereed stuff and the unrefereed stuff. It
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is up to you to then choose, but we do believe that it is important
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that we make a distinction between those two. We are not trying to
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hide anything from the scientists. Let everybody have access to
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everything as long as it is made clear what is refereed and what is
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not refereed. I think that if we achieve that, we should be able to
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enhance the role literature plays and that is the main goal. As we
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said, we want the stuff to be available 24 hours a day at the desktop
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of everybody. We imagine a situation where everybody, the moment they
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get into the university or at their desk at home and switch on their
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computer, are immediately alerted to relevant material - derived from
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what they have been doing in the past - through a very sophisticated
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search. But it could also include mundane matters such as switching on
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your computer to find a first message "You might like to know that
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last night you were cited in this paper". The first thing you do is
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click on that button and look for what paper cited you. It's fun, it's
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pleasant, but at the same time you use literature more than you
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otherwise would have done because you look at the article and find it
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is interesting; so you look at a few references, and you are bound to
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click on one of these references and before you know it you are
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working with literature. So I am very optimistic about these
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possibilities.
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You don't have to believe everything I say - hardly anybody ever does
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- but I would say we believe that the future electronic world is
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bright. We want to be part of it and it is up to us to prove that we
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play a leading role. There is more choice for the community and that
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is good because a bit of competition keeps us on our toes. We don't
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mind that at all. That is one concluding remark I would like to
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make. It is very, very important for you to understand that we are
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convinced that we can play a role but only in an open technology
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environment. We will make all our material linkable with anybody else
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who is there. We are not trying to corner the market and say: "We have
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a box that is only accessible to us". That is in nobody's interest -
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not of us and not of the end-user. I find it ironic, and also
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laughable to be honest if I may say so, that I often have the
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impression that we are more liberal now as commercial publishers than
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some of these society publishers who seem to be defending not just the
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interests of their members but also their own interests. I find it
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unbelievable and beyond words that the American Chemical Society
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refuses to publish anything that has appeared on a preprint server
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that is not run by the American Chemical Society. That kind of
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monopolistic behaviour we wouldn't even dare to think of. That cannot
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be the way to go. There is a role for everybody, and there is much
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more to be done. Big investment is needed but there are also bigger
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rewards to be gained because of the extra use that will drive it. The
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use of our database has gone up within a year more than 400%; that is
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incredible and there is no slowing down. If we have another year of
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400% increase, I think people will use it so much that the debate on
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prices will go away. As a concluding remark then, prices are high per
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journal but the prices are not high for the whole system. Every
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university, as you have also learned this week, spends about only 1%
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of the total budget on all literature - not just ours - all
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literature, books and journals combined. But we also know that every
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library spends only a quarter of their budget on literature, and the
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rest is infrastructure. I am actually convinced that if we all deliver
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using the models that I have described, the infrastructure costs will
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come down dramatically. As you might have heard we have signed a deal
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with all Dutch universities that they have unlimited access to all the
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material Elsevier Science publishes - we have got a complaint from one
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librarian that we were destroying his document delivery business. I
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mean, what kind of comment is that? I am pleased to hear that the
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British Library last year for the first year ever, saw a decrease in
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the documents delivered because more and more publishers have these
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special arrangements (not just Elsevier Science but also Wiley
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Academic Press and the like) where people have more access to our
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material and, therefore, less need for document delivery which is
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sub-optimal. One last remark to illustrate this: two years ago we had
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about 500,000 subscriptions at Elsevier Science and we were used to
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the fact those numbers went down every year by a few per cent as
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librarians had to cancel. Now, with new contracts combining electronic
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and paper delivery, we have, at the end of December, more than 700,000
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subscribers. This means there is no longer attrition. There are now
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200,000 extra institutes who have access to our material than there
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was two years ago. As far as I am concerned we should not stop at
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700,000; we aim for 7 million users, and this is not because I have
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made a big investment but because it is good for all of us. That is
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the way to go. Let's grow this business. We are so used to attrition
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in the number of subscribers when we are in a growth business. There
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is still more research, there are still more researchers every
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day. This is a very thriving business. The only thing that is not
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thriving is paper publishing but electronic publishing will do that
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and I hope to live to see it. Thank you.
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