[Mirrored from: http://www.agu.org/ei/bamsei.html]

Earth Interactions: An Electronic Journal Serving the Earth System Science Community

Keith L. Seitter
American Meteorological Society

Judy Holoviak
American Geophysical Union

Reprinted from the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, September, 1996, pages 2095–2100.
© 1996 American Meteorological Society.


1. Introduction

The recently launched electronic journal, Earth Interactions, represents a major electronic publishing initiative for the Society. Planning for this journal started in 1992, at which time two important decisions were made: 1) the Society should seek to undertake a bold initiative in electronic publishing that would go beyond the limitations of the printed page, and as a result, this publication should be independent of the established print journals; and 2) this effort should be carried out as a collaborative effort among similar societies to spread the risk and increase the likelihood of success. The electronic journal that grew out of this extensive planning effort is a collaborative effort in which the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the Association of American Geographers (AAG) are joining with the American Meteorological Society (AMS) as copublishers. The Oceanography Society (TOS) and the Ecological Society of America (ESA) have cooperated in the planning of this journal, as well, and it is hoped that their input will continue as the journal becomes an established publication.

Information related to the creation of Earth Interactions has been published in the Bulletin and elsewhere (AGU 1995; AMS 1995; Orcutt and Holoviak 1995; Simpson and Seitter 1995), but a more complete description of the history, structure, and format of the new journal has not previously been made available in the print literature. The intent of this article is to provide a more complete description so that the community can see how such a journal fits into the scholarly publishing enterprise of the Society.

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2. History

Initial discussions among representatives of AMS, AGU, ESA, and TOS began in late 1992, and AAG joined the collaboration in early 1994. From the start, discussions centered on the concept of an interdisciplinary journal focused on issues of what has been termed "earth system science." This area of increasing research effort includes the atmospheric, oceanic, hydrologic, solid earth, and biological sciences and is largely focused on issues related to global change. There has been a need for a scholarly journal in this rapidly growing research area, and the extensive use of computer modeling and computer visualization by scientists working in the earth system sciences makes it an attractive candidate for an all-electronic journal. No single society in the collaboration covers all disciplines in this area, but the collaboration covers the earth system sciences quite well. While each of the societies has been carrying out some initiatives in the realm of electronic publishing [see Seitter (1996) for a discussion of other AMS activities in this regard], each felt that a collaborative effort on an electronic journal was an effective way to spread the financial risks while greatly improving the prospect of success.

As the details of the collaboration became more well defined, three of the five societies, AMS, AGU, and AAG, banded together as copublishers of the new journal while the other two, TOS and ESA, chose to take on a lesser role. The AMS and AGU have taken on the responsibility of doing the actual production of the journal in electronic form, while all three of the copublishing societies are supporting the editorial board that oversees the peer-review process.

NASA's Mission to Planet Earth (MPTE) program is expected to be an important source of observational data for future earth system science research. Since an electronic journal provides an innovative approach to the dissemination of research results stemming from the NASA program, it was felt that support might be obtained from NASA to cover some of the start-up costs of the journal. A proposal was submitted in the summer of 1994, and NASA awarded a grant for the electronic journal project in March 1995. The NASA/Goddard Distributed Active Archive Center (DAAC) has provided significant technical support in addition to the financial support provided by NASA's MTPE.

The editorial board was put into place in the fall of 1995, with Eric Barron serving as chief editor and George Heppner, David Sandwell, and Kevin Trenberth serving as editors. More on the makeup of the editorial board is provided in a recent announcement of the board (AGU 1996). The first call for submissions was made by the copublishing societies in November 1995, and the first manuscript was submitted in February 1996.

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3. Basic philosophies and mission of the journal

a. Basic philosophies

Very early in the planning stages of the journal, several basic philosophies were agreed upon by the collaborating societies, and these philosophies have been carried forward in the implementation of the journal. The journal is peer reviewed at a high scholarly level so that it can stand on par with the best of the societies' print journals. This should allow it to attract high quality papers from excellent authors and should lead to it having a positive impact in promotion and tenure considerations. Articles will also undergo a full level of copy and technical editing to ensure a uniform style and a quality consistent with an archive journal. In addition, agreement was reached on two major issues that would drive the nature of the collaborative effort.

i) The journal should not seek to reproduce electronically what can be printed on the page but, instead, should strive to take the fullest advantage of the medium to go beyond the capabilities of the printed page.

ii) The journal must be structured in such a way to allow it to eventually be financially self-supporting (even though outside funding will be used for the start-up phase).

Almost all scientists working in the atmospheric, oceanic, and related sciences are making extensive use of sophisticated computer graphics techniques in their research and are often faced with the dilemma of deciding how to present their results in a way that captures the essence of the visualization within the limitations of the printed page. Also, researchers would often like to be able to make available the extensive datasets supporting their published work in a way that allows others to validate and extend their results. Publication in an electronic form removes the restrictions of the flat, static, printed page for graphical presentation and allows data files to be attached (or at least pointed to) in a straightforward manner. All of the collaborating societies agree that the proposed journal must forge into the highest possible level of electronic sophistication in order to justify the need for an electronic journal over a paper one.

Most of the current electronic journals are offered free to subscribers (Okerson 1995) and are produced with some level of subsidized support. There has been a continuing debate on the economics of electronic journals compared to print ones (e.g., Okerson and O'Donnell 1995), with little apparent consensus on the issue. The collaborating societies in this project have determined, however, that the proposed journal will not be less expensive to produce than a comparable print one because of the high level of editorial quality that will be set as a goal and the expenses associated with structuring, formatting, and preparing the hypertextual links in the electronic files of the journal. The journal will also incur continuing expenses associated with maintaining state of the art technology to store and deliver previously published material. The collaborating societies feel that their print journals should not subsidize the production of an electronic journal on a continuing basis, especially given the anticipated continued growth of electronic journals. It was therefore agreed that the proposed journal must be structured from the start in a way that would allow it to move toward economic self-sufficiency.

b. Mission statement for the journal

The overall scope of Earth Interactions is provided in its mission statement.

Earth Interactions publishes in the electronic medium original research in the earth system sciences with emphasis on interdisciplinary studies. Within this framework, the journal particularly encourages submissions that deal with interactions between the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere in the context of global issues or global change.

Submissions introducing observational or modeled datasets that may be useful in the study of earth system science and that include both a description of the algorithms and/or processing techniques used and a brief, representative sample of the information in the dataset are also appropriate.

The electronic medium in which the journal is published provides unique opportunities for data presentation, animation, and interaction. Authors should strive to take maximum advantage of the capabilities of the electronic medium, but any electronic manuscript that deals with the subject areas of the journal will be considered for publication.

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4. Moving beyond the printed page

With the explosive growth of the World Wide Web, and browsers and viewers designed for it, has come the ability to deliver a broad range of content, including graphical images, animation, formatted text, and datasets, in an effective manner. Many have discussed the importance of this new technology in the dissemination of scientific knowledge (Taubes 1996a,b; Segal et al. 1995 ), and there are now several electronic publications serving scientific disciplines delivered via the Web (Taubes 1996a). In most cases, however, the current electronic publications are delivering content that could be delivered in printed form, and are thus not fully exploiting the capabilities of the media.

A fundamental goal established for Earth Interactions has been the inclusion of content that can be delivered effectively in electronic form but that does not lend itself to the printed page. There are several forms of content that can take advantage of an electronic publication to provide a greater value to both authors and readers. Authors can present their results in ways that include some of the sophisticated graphics used by them to draw their conclusions, and scientists accessing the authors' work may be in a position to gain access to data and observations needed to verify and expand the results presented. The following subsections discuss some of the major types of content expected to become common in electronic journals such as Earth Interactions that provide value beyond that presently available in print journals. The major constraint placed on the types of content allowed is the delivery of the journal via the Web and the need to take advantage of file formats for which Web-capable viewers exist.

a. Animation and virtual reality

Animated graphics are used throughout the research community in the atmospheric, oceanic, and related sciences to view the evolution of observed or modeled phenomena and can be delivered electronically on the Web in MPEG or Quick Time formats. There are a variety of other electronic formats in common use for the creation and display of image loops and animations, but the journal is currently supporting only MPEG and Quick Time since Web viewers are widely available for these formats.

Some researchers are beginning to take advantage of virtual reality displays (Wheless et al. 1995), which can be delivered in VRML format. There is every reason to expect an increasing use of this technique.

b. Datasets

While print journals can display small datasets as tables and can even support the dissemination of fairly large datasets through appendixes or print or microform supplements, an electronic journal can provide data in a form that can be directly ingested by analysis packages for further study. Earth Interactions will provide for small datasets to be appended to an article or for larger datasets that reside in an established data archive facility (such as one of the DAACs) to be pointed to with an active link.

c. "Live math" and numerical code

The term "live math" has come to be used to refer to equations or sets of equations held in a document in a symbolic form that can be ingested by a mathematical analysis routine (such as Mathematica or Matlab) and manipulated interactively. For example, rather than only displaying a graph of an equation with a particular parameter set to a few common values, the equation and parameters could be held as a live math set so that a reader could produce graphs on his screen for any value of the parameter he or she chose to enter. Earth Interactions currently supports the inclusion of Mathematica Notebooks.

If an author chooses to do so, a file containing numerical code can also be appended to an article as a means of providing the author's analysis tools to the community.

d. Interactive 3D display

Software already exists that allows true interactive 3D display (so that a viewer can rotate a 3D object and view it from any desired angle), but the standards for Web-capable viewers are not firmly established. Thus, while Earth Interactions should include these sorts of displays in the near future, it does not at this time.

e. Forward references, linked comments and replies, and corrigenda

The concept of "forward references" is very exciting and only possible in an electronic publication. Here, after an article is published, it can have new references to later works added continuously to it that are on the same subjects and refer to the original article. Thus, readers of the original article can be directed to later work and can, in fact, access them through links embedded in the original article's forward reference section. To create forward references in an exhaustive fashion is a monumental and exponentially growing task, requiring a database of a scope comparable to that used to create Science Citation Index. The initial approach in Earth Interactions will be to provide forward references to later articles published in Earth Interactions that cite the original article.

Earth Interactions will not make corrections to articles after the official date of publication (with the exception of updating active links when necessary, etc.), but corrigenda can be added at the end of an article, and the fact that a correction has been made can be flagged in the body of the article if appropriate. While the temptation to adjust text, equations, or figures after formal publication when an error is noticed will be strong, it is important for the scientific community using the results presented in the journal to know that a correction has been made and when that correction was introduced to the literature. The value of the electronic medium is obvious here since no one accessing the article after the corrigenda is placed will be able to miss the fact that a correction has been made; as happens routinely in print journals. Similarly, comments and replies on an article, which could be critical to proper interpretation of the work presented in it, will be linked to the article so that readers will not need to rely on an extensive literature search to discover the later publication.

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5. Delivery of the journal in SGML

The journal will be produced as a World Wide Web–structured hypertext document amenable to delivery via any standard HTML browser such as NCSA Mosaic or NetScape. Individual articles within the journal will be coded in Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) rather than HTML and will be viewable by an SGML Web viewer that can be launched from the standard Web browser. While it is possible to create HTML files from the native SGML article for delivery over the Web (Taubes 1996a), use of an SGML Web viewer provides much greater control over the presentation, ensures integrity of the displayed information, and takes advantage of the available technology to display mathematics and special characters efficiently as coded text rather than as a series of embedded graphics files. The only SGML Web viewer available at the current time is SoftQuad's Panorama viewer. Additional information on Panorama is available on SoftQuad's home page at http://www.sq.com/products/panorama/pan-free.htm. Information on the increasing number of documents published on the World Wide Web in SGML is available at http://www.ncsa.uiuc.edu/SDG/Software/Mosaic/WebSGML.html.

Journal articles will only be available to subscribers of the journal; either as individual subscribers or through association with an institutional subscriber. Through an agreement with SoftQuad, the copublishing societies will be able to provide subscribers with the latest version of the Panorama software as part of their subscription for a price that is greatly reduced from normal. Thus, all subscribers will be able to readily view the journal. Articles will be placed on-line as they are ready for dissemination (though they may be collected into "issues" for administration and archive purposes), and subscribers to the journal will be notified of new articles via e-mail.

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6. The peer-review process for Earth Interactions

Since material will be in electronic form from submission through final dissemination to subscribers, the peer-review process must be carried out electronically as well. This presents a technical challenge since authors will probably submit materials in a variety of formats from a variety of word processing packages and conversion to a format matching each referee's own software would be impractical. Instead, the device independence of Web browsers and other viewing software is being exploited. Authors submit the text portion of their manuscript (including all tables) as PostScript or encapsulated PostScript files. All graphical material is submitted in a form that can be viewed by any of the standard Web external viewers (MPEG, JPEG, GIF, EPS, etc.). The text portion of the manuscript is converted to the Adobe Acrobat PDF format, which is viewable with any Web browser using a PDF reader such as the freely available Acrobat Reader. This text portion and all supporting graphics files are linked through a simple HTML structure to provide a coherent (though not very fancy) document that can be accessed by a reviewer using any standard Web browser and a few appropriate external viewers.

Reviewers are provided with information on how to access the article they are to review over the Web, and a link in the review set provides additional information on how to obtain any necessary additional viewer software for their Web browser that might be needed. Reviewers generate an e-mail message of their review for transmission back to the overseeing editor (just as they often do with print journal manuscripts), and the body portions of these e-mail messages are extracted to provide the anonymous reviews back to the authors so that the authors can begin the revision process.

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7. Some aspects of the economics of Earth Interactions

The economic model for the journal is quite similar to the model used for print journals. Revenue will be derived from both author charges and subscription fees. During the start-up phase of the journal, while significant support is being provided by the NASA MTPE program, author charges are being waived and subscription fees will be subsidized. Budget and cost information is being gathered during this phase that will be used in establishing fair charges and fees that can be implemented later to bring the journal to economic self-sufficiency. Subscriptions provide an important component of the economics of print journals that allows the author charges to be kept reasonable. Subscription revenue also allows societies to publish work even when the author's institution does not have funds available to cover the author charges, and the collaborating societies want to be able to continue that policy with the electronic journal.

The subscription model being planned seeks to emulate the best features of the print model and address some of the concerns of both individual and institutional subscribers. The subscription will be a flat fee for a volume year of the journal, with a fee structure that provides for the lowest cost to members of the five societies in the collaboration, somewhat higher fees for individuals who are not members, and still higher fees for institutional subscribers that provide the journal to patrons on an institutional network. Since the subscription provides access to an electronic source, the subscriptions take on more of the character of individual and site (institutional) licenses under which the subscribers agree to adhere to the terms of their particular subscription type (including copyright restrictions).

The flat-fee subscription approach, as opposed to a pay-per-use one, is considered important because the flat-fee approach does not discourage users from browsing the contents on a frequent basis. Browsing is especially desirable for an interdisciplinary journal that hopes to foster linkages between scientists in different disciplines who are working on similar issues in the earth system sciences. An important component of the proposed subscription model is that the subscription fee for a given year will provide access to that volume year of the journal on a continuing basis. This addresses the concerns of both librarians and individuals who do not want to be in the position of having to download the contents of an electronic journal during the subscription year in order to have access to it at a later time. The intent would be to provide access on a continuing basis to the 1997 volume year of the journal, for example, to any individual or institution who subscribed in 1997—even if they drop their subscription for subsequent years. The details allowing implementation of this scheme have not been completed, but it is a driving philosophy behind the subscription model being developed.

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8. Conclusions

Earth Interactions represents a new, peer-reviewed, high quality, scholarly electronic journal that takes advantage of the electronic medium to go beyond the limitations of the printed page for the presentation of scientific research results. It is important to note that despite the desire of the collaborating societies to use this project as a learning exercise, this journal is not considered an experiment. It is a full-production journal of the collaborating societies that will be an archive journal of important scientific results. It will test the market for an electronic journal of this type and will also test a specific cost-recovery model for electronic publication, but will be able to attract high-quality submissions only if authors understand that the journal will be a permanent, long-standing publication of the copublishing societies.

Publishing a journal in a collaborative effort is not as straightforward as publishing it as a single society. Coming to consensus on issues of policy and on business arrangements is difficult and can require several iterations of proposals before the societies' governing boards allow the project to move forward. The variety of experiences that can be brought to bear on the project from the various societies, however, makes up for any difficulties since this broad experience base leads to a more viable publication.

Many have discussed the ways in which an electronic journal can not only disseminate content that goes beyond the printed page, but can also provide a completely new and different means of carrying out scholarly publishing (Okerson and O'Donnell 1995; Segal et al 1995; Taubes 1996b; and others). The copublishers of Earth Interactions have specifically chosen, however, to follow the model of the print scholarly journal as closely as possible. The electronic medium provides ample opportunities to add value to the scientific content without changing the basic structure of the peer-review and publication process that has served science so well for so long.

We encourage readers to visit the Earth Interactions Web site (at the URL http://EarthInteractions.org) and look forward to comments and suggestions concerning this important electronic publishing initiative.

Acknowledgments. The authors are grateful to the staff at the NASA Goddard DAAC, especially Paul Chan, Chris Lynnes, and Loring Millin, who have provided excellent technical support on this project.

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