March/April 2000


When Internet service provider AOL announced it would acquire media conglomerate Time-Warner, Dave Pell, publisher of Davenetics, an online news service for Web professionals, crowed, "The people who still (even to this day) think the net is just about hype are wrong. The debate is over. We are lucky enough to have a front row seat at this revolution."

Our culture is in the process of changing its whole definition of words like media and publishing. Commercial publishing giants now flow into new forms at dizzying speed. We hear a lot about a new "internet Darwinism", with predictions that only a few large "electronic content providers" will survive. This talk raises troubling questions for small journal publishers like the Seismological Society of America (SSA).

If it is difficult for commercial publishers to plan an electronic future, it is even more difficult for nonprofit scholarly societies. Venture capital is not available to fund expensive mistakes. Although I still occasionally hear from a Society member that it is "trivial and straightforward" to publish on the Web, most now understand that it involves complicated decisions and big risks.

Although we are a small society with a conservative tradition, SSA leaders have faced electronic publishing with considerable vision and foresight. SSA's Publications Committee, chaired by Vernon Cormier, has been grappling with these issues for a number of years. Early on, former Treasurer Fred Followill urged the Board to prepare for large investments in electronic publishing development. In 1997 we engaged a consultant, Chris Biemesderfer, to help us plan for electronic publishing. Biemesderfer has also worked with the American Astronomical Society and University of Chicago Press on the electronic edition of the Astrophysical Journal.

Astrophysicists, by the nature of their science, were early adopters of publishing on the Web. Because many of them work with large NASA databases, they moved quickly from the concept of posting pictures of a printed page to visions of complex links between journals, databases, and gray literature. Informed by this experience, Biemesderfer has encouraged the SSA leadership to look at electronic publishing from a number of angles, to visualize the future potential of interconnectivity, to see that every decision we make in this area may have unexpected long-term implications, and to understand the limits of current technology. We're learning that timing is everything. Investing too much, too early in the "wrong" technology can be as fatal as being left behind.

In 1998 the Board voted to invest in the development of a translation protocol that allows the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA) to be prepared in Standard Generalized Mark-up Language (SGML). This means that our compositor (nobody calls them typesetters anymore) now prepares the text of BSSA as a database using a coding language which is an ISO standard. Files in this format can be converted "on the fly" to other formats and offer maximum flexibility in the future. In our first translation from this SGML file, the compositor, Impressions, Inc., is creating files with the body of BSSA articles in PDF and with the headers to the articles in SGML. Impressions is then sending the files to the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), a nonprofit service for libraries, which will post them on the Web. The PDF files will provide a picture of the printed page as we are used to seeing it and the SGML headers will allow some initial linking.

With the 2000 volume, BSSA enters a new phase in its 89-year history--one that would have astonished its founders. An electronic edition will be available to library subscribers through OCLC and to members through the members-only section of our Web site.

Although PDF is a milestone, it's not a permanent solution. We know that in the future we will want to provide more interactivity than PDF can offer: links to references and related citations and, probably ultimately, to data.

The difficult questions are only beginning. How will a society with a staff of 3.1 people, whose current Web server is a Mac in the corner of my office, host so much content? How will we ensure the archival quality of the electronic files? Is it really appropriate for SSA to host supplementary data? If not, can we build alliances with data centers? How will we link to and from references in other journals? AND how can we all set up those links and still survive financially? What kinds of partners and suppliers are appropriate? Will the same forces that propel the commercial world toward "Darwinist" consolidation apply to nonprofit publishers as well? If so, how will this impact a small group like SSA?

A few months ago I met with a representative of a "digital library" that wanted to host our journal if we would bring our "disciplinary cluster" with us. I could imagine the length of the Board discussions on the definition of our "disciplinary cluster." Geophysicists? Geologists? Earthquake engineers?

Most of us would agree that we are viewing a real revolution. As at the movies, having a front row seat at a revolution can, indeed, be thrilling, even though at the same time it may be a pain in the neck. It is exciting to participate in decisions that may improve the way seismological research is done in the future. The staff and elected leadership will continue to try to keep up with the action. We will continue to welcome member comments and suggestions. In the process, perhaps we should all hold on to our chairs.

Susan B. Newman
Executive Director
Seismological Society of America

To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, contact Editor John Ebel by email or telephone him at (617) 552-8300.

Posted: 24 February 2000