Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Fall 1999

Journal Reviews and Reports

Review of ASCE Online

John Matylonek
Engineering Librarian, Valley Library
Oregon State University

The electronic journal market is going full-steam ahead, with suppliers of the new format coming from primary publishers, indexing and abstracting services, academic publishing initiatives, and subscription agents. Primary publishers, in particular, are rapidly converting publishing products to include networked equivalents of traditional print publications. The American Society of Civil Engineers Publications division has partnered with the American Institute of Physics (AIP) and its Online Journal Publishing Service (OJPS) to bring to the civil engineering community the advantages of electronic publishing.

The ASCE Online Journals Program will allow desktop access to a broad range of journal titles covering 27 engineering specialties with search capabilities, and desktop article delivery. Because ASCE also publishes its own indexing and abstracting service, the Civil Engineering Database (CEDB), ASCE Online will be able to offer a wide variety of options for delivery. According to the ASCE press release,

Individuals who subscribe to any print journal can have access to the electronic version of that same journal. Institutional print subscribers will be offered the option of site licenses to the online service. Those who choose the "online only" subscription of a journal will receive a modest discount over the printed version. And all site visitors may enjoy a pay-per-view feature called Articles on Demand that allows the purchase and delivery of articles directly to the desktop.

Other major features of the program will include:

Beyond the hype, an electronic journal program has to stand against the emerging electronic collection development evaluation schemes. Most would agree on four areas of evaluation: content, presentation, technical requirements and licensing. This review will address each.

Searching and Presentation

Gateway Pages to the Journals

The collaboration between the two associations, ASCE and AIP, is apparent in the organization of the electronic journal site. The list of journals available on the ASCE publications site is hyper-linked to 27 dedicated online journal web directories hosted by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) and its Online Journal Publishing Service. AIP has the technical expertise to provide certain required features of a web-based online journal system. The article delivery system provides access to those customers who do not want to commit to a subscription. IP recognition (client computer identifiers) or passwords provide the basis of various user access options.

The access page contains a pull-down list of journals offered. At this point, an information retrieval problem presents itself. There is no way of knowing which journals are subscribed to within a home library. With IP recognition (computer identification and authorization) being standard Internet technology, there is no reason why this list can't be dynamically created based on the user's licensing status or annotated with a subscriber's licensing status icons. ASCE does implement this technology but only at the article level, where they hope non-subscribers will order via document delivery. This will cause needless browsing and confusion among library users who are not aware of the library's access rights.

Journal Pages

The ASCE online journal gateway pages have predictable layouts and fast-loading graphics but lack originality. The only unique design elements of each journal are the use of different colors for menus and the title banners.

Graphic design is not just an aesthetic issue. Online resources need to have "identity" and navigation cues to provide a mnemonic to the unique quality of the source. End-users particularly need design cues although not at the expense of long load times. Despite the minimal graphic identity of each journal, librarians and experienced researchers should have no problem distinguishing sources with the presentation provided.

Each issue of a journal is presented by a web page that provides full abstracts of the articles. This page contains a hyperlink to a full-text portable document format (PDF) file. The PDF file offers a high-resolution facsimile of a traditionally designed article. Title, abstracts, and line graphics appear as they did in the print publications. Most of these PDF files are under one megabyte.

Searching an ASCE journal gateway is a matter of browsing the latest year or searching the CEDB for past issues.

A simple three button interface for each journal offers:

The Verity search engine provides searching in two modes, simple and advanced. The simple search mode contains two input windows connected by a variable Boolean operator and index field. Standard Boolean operators (proximity, truncation, and set creation) are available. Available index fields include: title, author, affiliation, subject, journal name, coden, and accession code. The index fields are not browsable.

The advanced search mode presents one large search window with sample queries below to guide the user. The limiting option windows for volumes, date range, number of hits are useful, but scattered and awkward in both modes. No natural language searching is available. Results are sorted by relevance ranking, chronological order or journal volume or issue number. You may refine or limit your search in another search window on the "results" page. Prior search sets are not saved for later combination.

Saving relevant items is a matter of using a check box for marking and later display. The article collection page automatically assesses your licensing privileges to the material by marking the article citation with a status icon. User network addresses that are authenticated according to subscription agreements have the full-text PDF file available as a link. Purchasing each article a la carte via the Article in Physics online document delivery service is an option for those without subscription agreements. You may also order the article through the Article in Physics online document delivery service or through the Linda Hall Library Document Service if you do not have a subscription.

The options available on the article delivery pages probably will be confusing to end-users. This is not for lack of effort by ASCE Online to make it clear. The pages that display records have explanations of what is available. However, users are seldom patient enough to decipher subtle licensing agreements and access rights. In part, this complexity is the result of the bundling of resources that have different licensing agreements under one navigational path. A system designed to go directly to a full-text journal or directly to an article delivery system based in user licensing would be less confusing. I hope that online publishers begin to separate their resources in the next evolutionary phase of electronic resources.

Content and Acquisition

The ASCE Online Journal Program is an electronic substitution format for long-standing ASCE print equivalents. The electronic equivalent ASCE journal does retain continuity with descendent print formats. Volume and page numbering is continuous and should allow new or standard practices in cataloging. The bundling of journal resources at one URL location may cause problems in providing seamless retrieval. The timeliness of updates should be better than print because of instant networked distribution. Each journal retains its editorial autonomy and any quirks in that process will continue. Only one year is available for each journal but that should grow with each publication. At this time, it is not certain whether they will add some back years; however, years will never roll off the current subscription. The central question for those institutions that do not subscribe to the paper version: How dependable will be access? The archive CD (see licensing section) does provide a back-up to ASCE server access, but this format requires maintenance of networked CD systems just when libraries are de-commissioning CD servers and moving exclusively to web-based access.

Licensing and Business Agreements

The free trial period lasts till January 2000, when full access will be limited to paid subscribers. Personal print subscriptions will include access to the electronic version of the same journal. Institutional print subscribers will be offered site licensing for the web service. There are currently no library consortium pricing policies. Those subscribers who opt for electronic versions only will receive a small discount. There are no perpetual access rights to electronic ASCE journal material. Thus, preservation of past issues is matter of maintaining the subscription and faith in the supplier. There is an option to purchase an annual CD archive of particular journals under the same licensing agreement as the online version. Currently, each institution is responsible for acquiring this CD at beginning of the year and retaining it as an archive.


The combination of web-based abstracts and references, hyper-linked indexes, and portable document file full-text articles are a practical mix of standard and familiar technologies. The ASCE service of providing the table of contents and abstracts for free is a benefit to all and an incentive for non-subscribers to use the document delivery options. Moreover, ASCE provides an added freebie -- the linking of ASCE journal references from the abstract to the CEDB. This provides a simple but novel way of locating the full-text of citations in each article.

Retaining the look and feel of traditional journal articles in the PDF format will probably enhance acceptance among the research community. As the average computer monitor increases in resolution, these PDF files ought to become more readable on the screen. Nevertheless, the search engine and the resulting web-based abstracts will usually provide enough information for a decision to print the full-text article. Most of the latest web browsers are configured to read PDF. The average processing speed of today's computers make it very convenient to print whole articles. The bigger problem is the bundling of all the online journals in one system through rigid navigational pathways. Users referred to a site that has a licensed journal subscription must then navigate their way to the resource. Grouping resources at one URL makes it difficult for libraries to present online journals in a way that doesn't require extensive guidance through a maze of hyper-links.

At this time, ASCE has not responded to me about the price of site licensing for current institutional print subscribers. If the cost of electronic access for a population of users is too high, then this might inhibit acceptance as an alternative format. That would be too bad, because the major advantage of electronic access is the ability to access articles from any desktop. If these site licensing costs are reasonable, then libraries may decide to discontinue the print version, receive the discount and commit to network access only. This option will be increasingly common if the cost of storage and maintenance of the print journal exceeds the convenience and cost of network access.


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