Washington, D.C.--For years, the rules for submitting articles to scientific publications were clear: Only new data would be published, and only after the report was reviewed by scientific peers. But last week chemists launched a preprint server, a forum for raw, unreviewed manuscripts. The server has sparked a heated debate, pitting two of the field's foremost publishing houses against each other.
The preprint server, run by publisher Elsevier Science's ChemWeb, is modeled closely on the physics preprint archive started in 1991 by Paul Ginsparg at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which today serves as a storehouse for some 146,000 articles. Posting a story there poses no problems for physicists: American Physical Society journals, including the prominent Physical Review Letters, not only publish articles already posted on the Los Alamos preprint server, but even provide the electronic connections for authors to submit to the journals at the click of a button.
Chemists, however, face a tougher decision. "A preprint server is highly controversial among chemists," said Daryle Busch, president of the American Chemical Society (ACS), speaking here at the society's national meeting last week. Busch, a chemist at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, says he and his colleagues are lured by the Web's speed, wide dissemination, and low cost of publishing. But many researchers fear that the absence of peer review will reduce the quality of submissions and force readers to wade through electronic mounds of poor-quality results in search of tidbits of worthwhile science.
The new preprint archive likely faces a tough future, because ACS journal editors are lined up against it. ACS publishes many of the premier journals in the field, including the flagship Journal of the American Chemical Society. Nearly all ACS journal editors consider posting results on the Web to constitute "prior publication," says Robert Bovenschulte, head of ACS publications. (Science maintains the same policy.) That means ACS journals will not publish papers that appear first on ChemWeb's preprint server.
But Elsevier's own journals will. Indeed, Elsevier--which is ACS's chief competitor in the chemistry journal publishing business--may be counting on ChemWeb to give its journals an edge among some chemists. Elsevier officials may be hoping that researchers interested in distributing results quickly will then send their articles to Elsevier journals to get the peer review stamp of approval, Bovenschulte says.