The journals also provide quality control and readability. We have over 60 people on staff, a large number of whom are involved in copyediting. Although it costs a lot of money to copyedit journals, it is important. Moreover, the fact that more than half of our articles are now authored by foreign nationals makes the issue of copyediting and readability in English much more important across the field.
Furthermore, the journals provide control over the format and presentation of figures and tables. Despite the many pages of information we provide concerning how to submit a paper and what format the figures and tables should take, they come in as a hodgepodge. So unless somebody does the work to put them all into a consistent format, readability would be impossible.
Journals also digitize content for broad distribution. Soon, perhaps, the print version will be dropped altogether in favor of the digital format because this would make it possible to be involved in more areas, such as the gray literature, data mining, and other functions that can only be done online and that are not available through the print journal.
Journals also help with nomenclature in microbiology. This is vital in dealing with the coming avalanche of digital information. There are 40 terabytes of genes coming down the road, and you have to call them something. It is no good simply to have a million genes and wish to communicate about them. They have to have names. There has to be some way of recognizing these genes, which means that nomenclature is a critical issue, but it does not arise de novo, nor is it maintained within a vacuum.
The ASM journals try very hard to standardize nomenclature according to the old Demerec’s rules, but it is simply impossible. Last year there were 540 manuscripts published where nomenclature was a serious issue in terms of trying to standardize what people call genes. In establishing a microbial commons, this is something that should be addressed up front. What do you call genes? You can have digital identifiers which are a best effort to identify a gene, but within such a context there are some genes that are known with 100 percent certainty, there are many genes where the probability of their function is less than 60 percent, and there are many, many genes whose functions are unknown at any level of probability. This is a real problem and only getting worse. Without rigid structural context, we only will exacerbate this problem.
Finally, as has been mentioned several times in this meeting, journals play a major role in making sure that biological materials are shared. We have a strict rule in all of our ASM journals: If you do not provide the materials to the community that you published about, you are not going to publish in an ASM journal again. Indeed, we very often get complaints from researchers who tell us that they have had difficulty getting the biological material from a cited author. If the report was published in an ASM journal, we will write to the author and remind the author of our rule. We cannot take the author to court, but we try to use whatever powers we have (denial of future publication in an ASM journal) to ensure the sharing of biological materials.
We also try to use the power that we have to make sure that the materials and methods are completely described. We have refused to publish papers—even otherwise scientifically acceptable papers—where authors have not provided enough detail concerning the materials and methods.
What should journals do to further the advance of science? Here is my personal wish list assuming that all were digital and we did not have the constraints of print copy.
I would start with free and immediate availability. If you are a member of the ASM, you can get immediate digital access to all 55,000 pages for $235 a year. That may seem like a lot of money, but an iPod costs $200, and everyone seems to have one.